The Index Card Summary of “The Upside of Stress”

In the era of COVID-19, emotional, physical, and financial stress have become inescapable for the foreseeable future. And with every time of hardship, we have a choice about how to respond to it. At least that is the premise of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. Her research-based advice can be summed up in 3 simple points:

  1. There are three types of stress responses:
    • Fight or flight response
    • Challenge response
    • Tend and befriend response
  2. You can influence which stress response you experience
  3. Choosing a more helpful response is beneficial in virtually all circumstances

Below is a brief dive into the findings and advice behind each point above.

1. There are three types of stress responses

Stress responses come in three flavors: fight or flight, challenge response, and tend and befriend.

Fight or flight is the best known but most maladaptive, because it primes you to either fight or run — neither of which is appropriate if triggered in most modern settings. (Fist fights with people not observing social distancing is not advisable).

By contrast, the challenge response is a physiological reaction to stress that increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from your experience. A challenge response makes you feel focused, not fearful, and creates a sense of flow that allows you to rise to the occasion.

And finally, the tend and befriend response releases stress hormones that increase courage, motivate care-giving, and enhance empathy, leading to strengthened social relationships.

While fight or flight is a self-protective response, the challenge response and tend and befriend response produce more pro-social outcomes.

2. You can influence which stress response you experience

How you think about stress can directly determine how your body processes it. If you perceive stress as a threat, you are more likely to have a fight or flight response, which negatively impacts both your psyche and physiology. Alternatively, if you have an optimistic framing of stress, invoking the challenge response or tend and befriend response, your body will release the types of stress hormones that help you recover and learn.

You can choose to think or act in ways that are known to trigger positive stress responses. Learning a new point of view has been shown to transform the stress response. For example, journalling for five minutes about the hardest experience of your life and what you learned from it that later improved your life can lead to a lasting improvement to life satisfaction and resilience. Specific actions, like volunteering for a charity, can invoke a positive stress response by shifting from self-focus to larger-than-self-focus.

3. Choosing a more helpful response is beneficial in virtually all circumstances

If you harness your stress response to help you engage and grow, over time you can experience “stress inoculation”: your brain will become conditioned to seeing stress as an opportunity to learn. McGonigal has found measurable benefits across social circumstances and psychological states. Adversity creates resilience and correlates with higher satisfaction.

What you can do today

Consider what your narrative about stress is, your behaviors around stress, and how those make you feel. What beliefs can you trade up for ones that give you hope, bravery, resilience, or a sense of connection? Such small shifts in mindset can lead to a cascade of effects. So rather than changing a million things in your life, change your mindset, and the rest will flow.

Airport yoga: the basics

Long weekends like President’s Day can woo us to long flights to the sunshine. And to be in good form for the flight and your vacay, getting your zen on can get you in the right frame to handle the most primal of human settings: the airport gate waiting area. Below are a few simple moves that can be achieved with your travel essentials, including your phone and your luggage.

So remember before you board, to take each waiting opportunity to get that blood flowing and expand outward before you crunch into an economy seat.

Define exercise?

Like many young millennials, I am a bit of a maximizer. I look for the shortest queue at the supermarket. I try to fit in just one more errand en route to a brunch date, so I don’t have to walk back across town later (I’m often just a smidgen late). And I try to max out my fitness benefit that my work provides me.

Rather than simply paying for your gym membership, like many start-ups these days, my corporate office offers a more flexible 75% refund of up to $500 total in fitness spending per year. Rather than throw it all at a ClassPass that I would underutilize during my erratic travel schedule (that wouldn’t be very good maximizing…), I decide to spend it piecemeal. $150 on a new iWatch (it hurt a little when they came out with version 2.0 a few months later…). $50 on some yoga equipment. And then, I was left to wonder with my remaining $300, what expenses qualify?

I remembered some completely miscellaneous items on a list from when I first joined the company, and the dire complaints of a colleague who couldn’t get his form roller reimbursed (“How is this not fitness equipment?!” he balked). So I knew they were pretty selective about what got through. I decided it was time to do a bit of research.

Unfortunately my intranet pointed me to the WageWorks helpline. I call, and proceed to navigate through the touch-tone. I finally reach a human that asks me the same questions as the automated recording. “What are the last four of your social?” I give them to her. “But that’s not what I see in the system!” she practically gasps. “What does that have to do with my question?” I ask. Indeed, clearly whoever writes these call scripts is not a maximizer themselves. If this were a consultant’s dreamland, I could magically inspire Jedi-like focus within her on how to minimize the time of both the callee and caller are on the phone. I’d waive my hand like Obi-Wan, and say in a soothing voice, “You want to cut out the unhelpful form-filling and answer questions as quickly as possible.” “Yes,” Susan would say, “How can I help?”

Finally, after 20 minutes of help line circles, I learn that nothing intuitive seems to count as exercise. “Does Citi Bike [bike sharing] qualify?” “Yes.” Most places would count that as a commuter benefit, but I was happy to take it. “What about roller blades?” “No, that does not qualify”. 

She then points out that all of this stuff is on their website. “Oh!” I say, “I’ll have a look for that.” Of course it wasn’t on the public WageWorks website. It was squirreled away on a private login site hidden within the intranet. 

In support of all maximizers out there, I have provided the list of WageWorks qualifying expenses below. This list can vary by employer, but this is a good starting place. Nutritional counseling is in. Swim classes are out. Logic be damned.

Description Covered Benefit Max Benefit p.a.
Activity Tracker or Smartwatch (once every 3 years) Yes 75% $150
Any expenses not explicitly listed No
Bike Sharing Memberships (Monthly or Annually only) Yes 75% $500
Dance Class No
DVD/Exercise videos Yes 75% $500
Exercise Class Yes 75% $500
Fitness Center, Club or Studio Membership Yes 75% $500
Fitness Counseling Yes 75% $500
Fitness games for game consoles No
Form Rollers No
Golf Lessons (including those from a country club) No
Golf or Country Club Membership No
Gym Membership Yes 75% $500
Health Center or Club Membership Yes 75% $500
Health Spa Membership No
Home Fitness Equipment Yes 75% $500
Initiation Fee (for covered services) Yes 75% $500
Inversion Table No
IWatch with tracking capability Yes 75% $150
Jogging Stroller No
Karate Yes 75% $500
Kick Boxing Yes 75% $500
Locker Service No
Martial Arts Yes 75% $500
Massage Services No
Medical Expenses / Medical Copays No
Monthly billing fee (for covered services) Yes 75% $500
Mountain/Road Bikes (One every five years) Yes 75% $500
Nutrisystem No
Nutritional Counseling Yes 75% $500
Online Classes Yes 75% $500
Personal Trainer Yes 75% $500
Pilates Yes 75% $500
Race Fees Yes 75% $500
Registration Fee Yes 75% $500
Rock Climbing Yes 75% $500
Shoes and Apparel No
Smart Watch with tracking capability Yes 75% $150
Smoking Cessation Products No
Spa Membership No
Spin Classes Yes 75% $500
Swim Club Membership No
Swimming Lessons No
Tae Kwan Do Yes 75% $500
Tai Chi Yes 75% $500
Tennis Club Membership No
Tennis Lessons (including those from a Country Club) No
Towel Service No
Weight Watchers Meals No
Weight Watchers Registration Fee Yes 75% $500
Wireless Activity Tracker (once every three years) Yes 75% $150
Yoga Yes 75% $500
Yoga/Workout Mats Yes 75% $500