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.