“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?


Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behavior therapy, created an acronym to guide us through moments of distress—or “terrible, horrible, very bad” circumstances. The goal behind the acronym is to develop a skill set for tolerating events and challenging emotions when you cannot immediately change the fact that, for example … your boss continually reprimanded you in front of your colleagues during your morning meeting, your teenage daughter screamed at you through that closed door again, or you just discovered that your dear friend from college is struggling with an addiction.

When I first read Linehan’s claim that someone can “distract” herself through a series of options couched within a model called “ACCEPTS,” I remember smirking. Accept by distracting … oh really?! Yet a large part of the day-to-day human struggle, for me anyway, intensifies in my vigorous resistance to difficult situations, conflicts, and uncomfortable emotions that can feel overwhelming in a given moment.

Distracting with other constructive and worthwhile options is a step toward acceptance and tolerance. If I choose to occupy my mind and body with other activities, it doesn’t mean that I necessarily approve of the event that is making me so angry, sad, or fearful, but it is an opportunity to redirect my energies in a more productive and meaningful way because this thing [this divorce, this job toxicity, this disease my friend is battling] is a reality that I must inevitably bear. It IS, and so are the other possibilities below:

Distract with ACCEPTS*

1.    “With Activities – Engage in exercise or hobbies … call or visit a friend”
What are your go-to activities? Do you have a repertoire of options? Can you throw on your running shoes and take a quick jog? Pick up those knitting needles? Do you enjoy tending those plants on your balcony or window sill? Is it time for a Netflix night or a game night with the kids?

2.    “With Contributing – Contribute to someone; do volunteer work; give something to someone else”

Do you have a “cause”? Is there a way that you give back to your community or neighborhood beyond your traditional work day? In her famous TED Talk, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites research indicating that people who manage stress best and have greater longevity are individuals who reach out, connect, and extend care to others.

3.    “With Comparisons – Compare yourself to people coping the same as you or less well than you”

Instead of the dangers of some social comparisons, which can lead to lowered levels of self-esteem, this form of comparison has the opposite effect. “This is not my worst moment. I’ve managed much more difficult circumstances than this.” The popular refrain, “This is a first-world problem” often helps me to put my minor frustrations in perspective as well.

4.    “With opposite Emotions – Be sure the event creates different emotions. Ideas: scary movies, joke books, comedies…”

What makes you laugh? Your goofy, slobbery dog? Your toddling two-year-old? An impromptu family dance party? A favorite TV show or stand-up comic? (Parks and Recreation is a favorite TV sitcom in my household!) What makes you joyful?

5.    “With Pushing away – Push the situation away by leaving it for a while”

This is a simple exercise in refraining from further rumination. Some suggest that designating a specified time for worrying (e.g., 30 minutes a day) is a better option. Otherwise, immerse yourself in other activities.

6.    “With other Thoughts” – Count to 10; count colors in a painting or tree … work puzzles”

Sometimes easier said than done, but there are multiple tools and methods for cognitive reappraisal (ways to practice re-framing and replacing thoughts) that can also be very beneficial.

7.    “With intense other Sensations – Hold ice in hand; squeeze a rubber ball very hard”

Lots of healthy and appealing options here, right? Sexual activity, loud music, an invigorating CrossFit workout, a super-hot shower.

All of these strategies offer alternatives to feeling bowled over by that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

*See Marsha Linehan’s website at www.linehaninstitute.org for additional resources related to dialectical behavioral therapy.