Chasing Meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort.
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D
TED Talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh Scotland, June 2013
Among the very first lessons I received as a school leader was to avoid stress whenever possible.
I began my career as a school administrator working as an associate principal alongside a wise, gentle principal who worried about stress. He had cause for concern. Several years earlier he had suffered a serious heart attack and his doctor had warned him to avoid stress. “Avoid stress?” he relayed to me of his conversation with his doctor. “I’m a school principal. How could I possibly avoid stress?” This principal calmly shared with me his doctor’s words: “I can’t tell you what to do, but I will tell you that if you experience too much stress, you will die. So, here is what I recommend. Each time you begin to feel stressed consider whether you will care about or even remember what is stressing you in five years. If the answer is ‘yes’, go ahead and be stressed. If the answer is ‘no’ then let it go.”
I’ve often paused during stressful moments and remembered this story, mostly allowing myself to let go of smaller stressors, or what I perceived as smaller stressors, while worrying about the large ones. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether or not I’ll remember a particular stressor, unsure as to its longer term seriousness or import. I’ve also shared the story more times than I can remember, conveying to others what I long viewed as wisdom about coping with stress.
I’m by no means alone in thinking about and stressing about stress. A survey of teachers and principals by Metlife, published in February, 2013 revealed that both teachers and principals experience substantial stress. Half of teachers and half of principals reported feeling under great stress several days a week. (Metlife, 2013)
We worry about stress. And yet . . .
Last week, on a trip to the library, I perused the new books section, open to something interesting I might not know about and might not ordinarily consider reading. I chanced upon The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal and experienced a welcome paradigm shift. According to McGonigal, unlike the advice the well meaning doctor offered the principal for whom I worked so many years ago, in order to maintain good health we need not avoid stress, but rather embrace it. Choosing to see the good in stress can help us discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life. The research is compelling.
In 1998 thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked both how much stress they had experienced in the past year, and whether they believed stress is harmful to health. Eight years later, 43 percent of those who both had high levels of stress and believed the stress was harmful to their health had died. The researchers estimated that during the eight years they conducted their research, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely not because they were stressed, but because they believed stress was harming their health. McGonigal puts this number in alarming perspective, sharing that based on this estimate, believing stress is harmful to your health is the fifteenth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. Perhaps as astonishing is the finding that those who reported high levels of stress, yet did not view the stress as harmful to health, had even lower death rates than those who experienced little stress.
Many educators have been inspired by Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and her distinction between those who hold a “fixed” mindset (believing their intelligence and talent are fixed traits, consequently seeking to prove their ability or avoid showing weakness) and those who hold a “growth” mindset (believing their abilities can be developed through hard work, consequently persevering despite obstacles). McGonigal explains that there are many different mindsets, or rather beliefs that shape our reality, including competing mindsets about stress; one maintaining stress is harming (depleting health and vitality, debilitating performance and productivity, inhibiting learning and growth) and the other proclaiming stress is enhancing (enhancing performance and productivity, improving health and vitality, facilitating learning and growth).
For years, convinced of the damaging impact of stress, I avoided, denied, or reframed as positive as many stressful situations as I could, striving as much as possible to remain unruffled by difficulty and calm in the face of adversity. Despite my best efforts, life happened. I experienced the usual stresses so many in education experience as well as a number of major, dramatic, life altering crises. Through it all, I learned to go into “crisis mode” when necessary, taking action to navigate through difficult situations, while mindfully expressing gratitude for the tremendous amount of good in my life; appreciating each good day, and even good moments during otherwise difficult days. Still, I viewed the stress as harmful and damaging. With a new mindset on stress, I feel I have received a precious gift; the invitation to embrace the many stresses in my life as challenges with the potential to enable me to strengthen qualities such as courage and compassion, connect with others by both giving and accepting care, trusting my ability to overcome difficulties, and forging greater meaning in life. It does not mean I wanted or sought the stresses, especially those that are significant and involve the suffering of others, but it does mean that if face them I must, I can allow myself to be transformed by the experience for the better.
Among the approaches McGonigal shares to embrace stress include transforming perceptions of stress from a threat to a challenge, helping others and accepting help from others, and trusting the human capacity to transform suffering into meaning. The shifts impact more than perception, altering biological processes in ways that enhance health. When anticipating that stress will help us, we produce more dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone that speeds up wound repair and enhances immune function. Higher levels of DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease and other illnesses we often consider to be stress related, as well as greater focus, less dissociation, improved problem solving skills, and fewer post traumatic stress symptoms. Helping others and accepting help from others releases the hormone oxytocin, reducing feelings of hopelessness. In one study, every significant stressful life event among those who did not routinely help others increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. However, study participants who went out of their way to help others showed absolutely no stress-related increased risk of death. Accepting help is also vital and while there are likely very few more universal human experiences than stress, often we feel isolated and disconnected in our stress, making it far more challenging to take action, see any possible good in a situation, or reach out to others to receive help we need or to benefit from being able to help others. Trusting our own capacity to learn from adversity can enable us to forge meaning and protect against health risks. Edith Chen, a psychologist at Northwestern University, found that people who grew up in poor or unsafe environments and yet both accept that they can learn from adversity and maintain optimism in the face of adversity do not experience the toxic buildup of stress related ailments common among others who have experienced similar stress; including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and inflammation.
And so, my gift to myself is to strive to shift a long held mindset about stress and embrace my stress, remaining open to growth and transformation. Might you accept the same gift? If so, how might you embrace stress and discover strength, courage, and compassion, meet challenges in life, and even lengthen life?
For more information, I highly recommend reading The Upside or Stress by Kelly McGonigal and viewing her TED talk How To Make Stress Your Friend, Edinburgh, Scotland, June, 2013