Believe It or Not, Stress Can Be Good For You

Stress can be your friend, says psychologist Kelly McGonigal. It's all a matter of how you respond to it.

Kelly McGonigal: Most people believe that there is one way that the body responds to stress, you know. Everyone’s heard the fight-or-flight response. But it actually turns out that that’s just one way that the body and brain can respond to a stressful circumstance. And it’s often not a very helpful way to respond to a stressful circumstance, especially one in which you really want to rise to the challenge and perform your best where it’s really not about survival mode. And it turns out that the brain and the body actually has another way of responding to these kind of high-stakes challenges, you know, whether it’s an important negotiation or you have to give a speech or an athletic competition. Those moments where you really want to show up and do your best. And that other way of responding to stress is called a challenge response. That it’s a way for your brain and body to give you maximum focus, attention, and energy. And it’s physically different than the sort of the fight-or-flight response that we have when we feel- deeply threatened by a stressful situation. When you have a threat response, you know, your body and brain are shifting into the state that is really sort of the classic association with the harmful stress response.

It’s going to make you more likely to choke under pressure. It’s going to feel more like dread or overwhelm. When you have a challenge response, the brain and body actually sift into a state that gives you more access to your resources. You know your heart might still be pounding, but your blood vessels are going to relax and open up so you get more blood flow to your muscles and to your brain. Your brain shifts into a state — it’s actually better at paying attention to everything in your environment rather than sort of being laser-focused like you might be in a fight-or-flight response on what’s going wrong or what’s dangerous. When you have a challenge response, all of your senses open to all the information that’s available to you, which means that you’re basically smarter under stress. And researchers have gotten really interested in figuring out how do you get people to shift from a threat response into a challenge response. Because unless your life is on the line in some sort of crazy emergency situation, it’s going to be better for you to have a challenge response than a threat response. You’ll perform better and that’s been shown in situations ranging from people performing surgery to athletes on the field to students taking difficult exams. That when you have a challenge response, you just do better. And it seems like one of the best ways to shift from a threat response to a challenge response is actually to view your own stress response as a resource.

You know the reason that many people have a threat response in a stressful situation is that the very first signs if anxiety when they notice some sweat on their brow or they’re starting to feel their heart pound they think, "Uh oh, I’m about to blow it," and they turn their attention to trying to calm down or trying to suppress whatever stress is arising. And research originally coming out of Harvard University has shown that when people say, "Okay, I’m stressed out. I feel stress happening right now. And that’s a resource. That stress can actually help me do better." It actually changes the physiology of the stress response from threat to challenge and it helps people perform better whether they’re giving a talk in public, whether they are engaging in a business negotiation, whether they’re a student taking an exam — across many scenarios. Literally just embracing your own stress energy, arousal, or anxiety can transform what’s happening in your brain and body to really help you rise to the challenge.


Dr. Kelly McGonigal is author of the book The Upside of Stress, so it's fitting she's here on Big Think chatting about ... well ... the upside of stress. McGonigal reveals that the body responds to stress in more ways than just fight-or-flight. Those two approaches stem from a threat response. Anxiety sits in and dictates your emotional state. Fight-or-flight thus tends to be detrimental to success. We perform much better in stressful situations when we enter what is called a challenge response. Instead of panic or recklessness, our brains maximize focus so that we perform at our best. The key to making stress an asset is to train the brain into forgoing threat response in favor of challenge response.

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