Book Review: The Upside of Stress
Challenge yourself for a better life
The Upside of Stress is by Kelly McGonigal. The subtitle is "why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it". I already believed (certain amounts & kinds of) stress is good for me—but I read the book to see what new facts and ideas someone else might be able to add to my set of beliefs.
I wanted to get better at writing quick book reviews for books that I felt like I had a little to say but not a lot to say about. Here were a few things that stood out to me, as best I could write it in one hour:
1. Perhaps the biggest theme running throughout the book is the idea that although popular culture says stress is bad, it is actually good for us IF we conceptualize it in our minds as a positive (e.e. as an opportunity for growth, or as proof that we're fulfilling our purpose in life):
[In one large study] high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But—and this is what got my attention—that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.
The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful.
2. Too much of this book seemed like the kind of research that would fail to replicate. Over and over again, she discussed huge gains that can be achieved just by having the right mindset. One the one hand, I do think my mindset is a big reason for my success. But on the other hand, some of these results just scream "failure to replicate" for me. She makes it seems like all we need to do to achieve utopia is to change people's mindsets. Here's one example quote I highlighted:
Studies show that when people are told, “You’re the kind of person whose performance improves under pressure,” their actual performance improves by 33 percent.
She uses the phrase "mindset effect", playing off the idea of a placebo effect. I went to check out what Wikipedia had to say about some of these research, and there was no Wikipedia page for mindset effect (but some similar research is discussed in the Wikipedia entry for "Mindset".)
Another study that she cites again makes me feel doubtful, but at the same time, I don't actually disagree with the conclusion:
Beliefs about aging have an especially big impact on behaviors following a major health challenge.
Do I think one reason I've remained athletic into my thirties, and after three knee surgeries, is that I believe in my ability to remain athletic? Absolutely. But my last decade on the internet has taught me to not trust the scientist saying small interventions can have big impacts. See Scott Alexander contra growth mindset.
3. She stresses (ha...) the idea that stress can help people come together. And, she does this in a different way than I had previously thought of stress being able to bring people together.
What I had previously focused on: doing hard things together (e.g. trying to win a championship on a sports team; going on a date that feels a little bit more exciting or dangerous — I believe this was discussed in the book Models) leads to deeper friendships than just hanging out in low-stress situations. Nothing lets you know that someone is really there for you like going through some shit together.
However, this is not really the community-building benefit of stress that she focuses on. Instead, she uses the phrase "tend and befriend" to expand our concept of how we respond to stress — it's not just fight-or-flight! She has an evolutionary psychology explanation for this, as well: we're stronger in groups so it's natural that when facing a danger we'd want to be closer (physically and mentally) to others.
Similarly she pushes back against the idea of a mismatch between the stress response that evolved in our ancient evolutionary environment and our modern life — "How will a fight-or-flight response help you manage the misery of your commute or the threat of unemployment?" — but... although life today is certainly different, wouldn't there have always been "slightly stressful" things happening to us? We weren't always getting mauled by lions, sometimes there was just a lion way off in the distance that we had to keep our eyes on.
Another area of pushback is against stress research done on animals. Here, there actually is a mismatch. Don't worry too much if you're feeling a little stressed at work, even if you see those headlines about how stress is bad for you. Here's what's actually behind a study about "stress" being proven "bad":
For example, when a friend of mine was pregnant with her first child, she saw a study online that put her in a panic. The headline warned that a mother’s stress during pregnancy is passed on to the baby. My friend was under a lot of pressure at work, and she began to worry. Was she permanently harming her baby by not going on early maternity leave?
I encouraged her to take a deep breath. The study she had seen was done on rats, not humans. (Yes, I looked it up—what are friends for?) The rats’ stress during pregnancy consisted of two things: daily restraint stress—a euphemism for putting an animal in a container no bigger than its body, with minimal holes for ventilation—and forced swimming, or making a rat tread water until it starts to drown. As much pressure as my friend felt at work, it was nothing like this.
4. Here's one thing that I noted down because I look forward to adding it to my "coaching toolbox": the idea that stress (or anxiety — "palms are sweaty, knees weak...") are our body preparing us for the challenege we're about to face. This is something I could see myself saying as when leading a team in an end of game huddle. Something like:
I know a lot of us tend to think of being nervous as bad, but I've learned recently that the scientists who study this stuff think that feeling a little stress or nerves is a good thing. These feelings that you're feeling are your body getting you ready to rise to the challenge. Your mind is turned all the way on to be focused on this moment, your heart is beating to bring blood to your legs and help you run fast. You don't need to be scared of your nerves. You can accept them, you can trust your body, and trust that it's doing exactly what you need it to in this moment, and then go out and use those superpowers that your body has unlocked for you.
I wrote this out myself partly b/c I couldn't find a quote from the book that I felt really encapsulated the theme of the chapter, which is named "How Anxiety Helps You Rise to the Challenge". Most of the research she presents there is focused on mental activities like test-taking.
5. Towards the end of the book, she does echo my main reasons for already being in the "stress is good" camp: humans instinctively look for a certain "purpose" in life, and achieving that purpose will require us doing hard things. Stress sucks when you're working overtime at a dead-end job just to make ends meet, but stress rocks when you're striving towards your potential as a human. Here's a few quotes from the book on this subject:
Stress seems to be an inevitable consequence of engaging in roles and pursuing goals that feed our sense of purpose...
When you see your job through a bigger-than-self mindset, it can elevate even the most basic tasks, and buffer against burnout.
The science also tells us that stress is most likely to be harmful when...It feels utterly meaningless and against your will.
She posits a "U-shaped curve", where people who've experienced too much life adversity will, on average, show higher rates of unhealthiness, but people who've experienced too few of life's challenges will, as well:
People at the extremes—either the lowest or highest levels of adversity—were more depressed, had more health problems, and were less satisfied with their lives.
6. She mentions that there is a genetic element to stress response (much like Peak Performance discussing a genetic element to dopamine response). So it's natural that people will respond differently to stress. The upside of being someone who's more sensitive to stress, she says, is you'll also have a heightened potential for growing from that stress.