Stress: not as bad as you think?


Stanford psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal has written a very interesting book called “The Upside of Stress. Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it)” (2015, Penguin Random House, London).

You may, like me, be surprised to learn that your relationship to the stress in your life is a bigger determinant of its harmfulness than the existence of stress itself. So if you believe the stress in your life is bad for you then you will most probably be right. On the other hand, if you believe you are doing something meaningful and the stress your experience is giving you energy and resources to lift your performance to meet the challenge – then you are probably also right and also healthier.

What matters is your mindset about the stress. Kelly McGonigal’s point is that we only feel stress when we are engaged in something meaningful that is being challenged in some way. Avoiding stress would, at the extreme, mean avoiding doing anything meaningful and that does not offer a full and satisfying life.

Using Stress to your Advantage

So how do you get a positive mindset about the inevitable stress that comes with making things happen in the world that you care about? A very powerful intervention is to write about your most important values and how your day’s activities relate to those values. Writing about your values for 10 mins helps you see meaning in your life and how your activities support what you want to be true – even if they are stressful to do sometimes. Even better it seems you need only do it once to have lasting effects because it creates a mindset change.

For example, you might be a carer at home with either young or old people and at times you experience some stress from tending to their needs – possibly for little acknowledgement or thanks. By writing about your underlying value of caring about others who need help, you can reconnect with the meaning behind these activities and hopefully re-frame your stress in terms of undertaking a challenge you wish to rise to and manage well.  Alternatively, you may find giving a presentation at work very stressful. You might choose to dodge it and end up not getting your thoughts and ideas across to others. Alternatively you can shift your mindset to embrace the challenge by writing about the values you express when you do communicate your thoughts and then do the presentation despite the stress.

To quote Kelly McGonigal “ It turns out that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological interventions ever studied” (pg70) – and it only takes 10 mins!

About the author: Dr Rosie Miller is a positive psychology coach and leadership transformation consultant. She runs Resilience for Performance programmes for people who want higher resilience and performance in themselves. You can find her profile at:






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