“I’m so worried!” “Are you stressed out”? Posts by frightened and frazzled humans flood the internet these days. The current political climate certainly isn’t fostering a general state of calm.

Is there anything new to say about stress—especially at this time? Well … yes, there is. A friend of mine recommended Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress to me last year. Over the summer (when I was less “stressed”), I gobbled it up, and I found some of her key ideas to be quite provocative—and ultimately helpful. If you don’t have the time or energy right now to dive into The Upside of Stress, read on for some of the highlights, and check out her famous TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend” here.

McGonigal explains “how the science of stress was born” by describing Hans Selye’s (1936) experiments with rats and the levels of torture they experienced so that he could test “the response of the body to any demand made on it.” These rodents were not undergoing typical day-to-day stressors that many humans do—they were exposed to intense exercise with no rest; they were blasted with loud noises; their bodies were flooded with toxic drugs, and some even had their spinal cords partially severed. McGonigal claims that Selye’s extreme experiments unfortunately set the stage for our “modern terror about stress.” No wonder.

Believe it or not, McGonigal claims that stress may not be as bad for you as you think. Challenging Selye’s “The-Hunger-Games-for-rodents” approach, McGonigal shifts gears to define human stress much differently, as a “biological state designed to help you learn from experience.”

With a powerful focus on “mindset” as a frame her book, she draws on numerous research studies to explain that our response to daily stressors ultimately determines its effect on our bodies, our minds, and even our mortality rates. She challenges traditional understandings of the fight, flight or freeze response to imminent threats and points to the ways in which the stress response actually helps us. Here are several positive ways in which stress might be leveraged to invigorate us, enliven us—and ultimately enrich our lives.

Stress pushes us to “rise to the challenge.” Because stress can focus attention, increase motivation, and mobilize individuals to action, McGonigal suggests that we can benefit from more positive mindsets as we grapple with the generalized state of anxiety we might feel (after reading or watching the news, for example). If we can view our nervousness (and even fear) as feeding a more attentive, energized, and attuned state of mind, we may feel more capable of addressing challenges with greater confidence.

Stress helps us “connect with others.” Studies show that stress responses can heighten prosocial instincts and encourage social cognition. If we feel isolated and overwhelmed, it’s important to listen to that little voice telling us to “reach out” and ask for help. Social networks, support groups, and volunteer activities can create the contexts and conditions necessary to face adversity— in community. More can be accomplished in groups when expectations are high and a sense of group support is palpable.

Stress motivates us to “learn and grow.” With greater knowledge of neuroplasticity (the brain’s adaptability and potential for growth), the stress response, however intense it may feel, was designed to help us restore nervous system balance and integrate new experiences into our neural repertoire. With each new challenge, our brains can learn and develop.

If Kelly McGonigal is correct, and “stress is a biological state designed to help [us] learn from experience,” how might we best respond today, this week, this year?

This [event] shouldn’t have happened, and…
• It’s terrible that it did, and…
• I can barely handle it, and…
• Somebody here needs to be called out or reprimanded because of it. Is it me? Is it you? What a screwed up world we live in that this should happen.

Can you think of a time when one of these thoughts passed through your mind? Last week? Yesterday? A few minutes ago? The phrases above represent common forms of irrational thinking identified and discussed by psychologists like Albert Ellis (Rational-Emotive Therapy) and Aaron Beck (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). In an article addressing teachers’ stress and their common reactions to student behaviors, John W. Maag (2008) references the following internal thought patterns:

• Demandingness: The use of the words “should/shouldn’t, have to, need to, must”
• Catastrophizing: The belief that a situation is worse than it is
• I-Can’t-Stand Its: Imagining one can’t tolerate situations or have any happiness if the situation persists
• Condemning and Damning: The tendency to be excessively critical of oneself, others, or the world

And there are many, many more. My personal defaults include “catastrophizing” (e.g., “This is a really horrible situation, and I just can’t believe that it’s happening”) and “personalizing.” Although only implicitly featured above with the “Is it me?” quote, personalizing assumes that somehow I’m primarily responsible for the behaviors and reactions of the people in my immediate circle. (My ego and I have learned that isn’t typically the case.)

Einstein says, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Our interpretations of events can aggravate, intensify, and sustain our perceived stress levels. Something happens; we feel it as chemicals surge through our bodies; we tell ourselves a story about it, and we react—not always in the best way. The key is finding a way to pause, notice, and interrupt the pattern so that we can rewire our brains.

This takes time. There is absolutely no simple way to do this, other than through consistent practice. Cognitive reappraisal, mentally shifting one’s interpretation of a situation, has proven to be one of the most effective, evidence-based methods for reducing anxiety, depression and/or stress (Hoffman et al., 2012).

For example, if a student yells at you when you ask her for her homework, you might initially think, “This is awful. I can’t believe she is screaming at me in front of everyone. I don’t deserve this!” However, if you reframe this incident by thinking, “That wasn’t fun, but it’s not about me,” you can begin to get curious about what is actually going on with your student today (rather than catastrophizing, personalizing, reacting angrily, and further escalating the situation).

To address your thought patterns and begin to rewire your brain, consider these three key steps:

  1. Record the repertoire of mental messages you send to yourself daily. Spend a week or two jotting down the common thoughts you have when you perceive a threat or potential conflict brewing (even those that seem fairly benign or innocuous).
  2. Do a content inventory of those thoughts. Do you notice any patterns? (Consult a list of common cognitive distortions.)
  3. If you are committed to digging in and making some long-term changes, do a post-mortem on your day-to day reactions. When a problematic event occurs, take the time that same day (or evening) to replay the situation with this “Testing your Thoughts” worksheet. If you practice using this tool 2-3 times a week (for a sustained period of time), you will likely increase your awareness of your thought patterns and begin to retrain your brain.

Believe in the power of neuroplasticity (i.e., your brain can change and rewire itself with practice), and take Pablo Picasso’s words to heart: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”