How You Can Turn Stress into an Advantage

By Misa Kurasawa : Reporter of Toyokeizai
December 23,2015
Misa Kurasawa
Reporter of Toyokeizai



Graduated from New York University with BA in Journalism/Economics.  After spending 11 years in the U.S., she came back to Japan and joined Toyo Keizai in 2006.  While covering industries like media and electricity, she also has been actively writing about American technology startups and entrepreneurs.


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(Photo by Hideji Umetani)
Stress is considered a great enemy of both physical and mental health. Although we are told to reduce stress, this is easier said than done. However, what if the idea that stress is bad for your physical and mental health is wrong, and what if it actually gives you strength?
In fact, there have been a number of studies in recent years claiming that stress can actually provide you with the strength to overcome difficulties. So how can we turn stress into an advantage? We asked Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a Stanford University psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress, about some training methods that anyone can use to better deal with stress.

What made you want to study the power of stress?

I’ve been teaching and working with stress longer than willpower. As a health psychologist, I was introduced to the idea that the way to make people happy and healthy was to reduce stress very early on in my career, and I started teaching stress reduction workshops.

What has changed is the way that I talk about stress; my mindset is probably the most helpful in dealing with stress. Just like willpower, it was about trying to help people deal with the challenges in their lives.

It's better to accept the reality

What made you believe that mind intervention really works?

I started rethinking my mindset toward stress in my personal life before I was introduced to the science of it. I was introduced, through mindfulness, to the idea that it was better to accept the reality of life than constantly resist what’s true.

I first learned to apply this mindset in dealing with my own experience of pain and anxiety, but it was really this latest science that gave me the courage to think: “Okay, this goes beyond just things like pain and anxiety.”

The recent science that has had the biggest impact on me is the research on how important it is to connect with your body every day—this sort of goes a step beyond the idea of just accepting stress.

How do you implement mindset intervention? Do you need to go see an expert to experience it?

You just need to tell yourself stress is good for you. The mindset interventions work when they get you to acknowledge something that is true that you weren’t aware of previously.

For example, if I was in a moment when I felt like I was the only one struggling and trying to balance family obligations and work obligations, and, as a result, my attention was on “Why is my life so hard?”, I need to shift my attention to “Wow, this is the struggle of modern life, and probably everyone else is also dealing with this.” They’re both true—mindset interventions are not so much about trying to convince yourself of something totally different; they’re about getting more control over where you choose to focus. When you pay attention to them, it helps you deal better as well as feel better.

You also need to pay attention to whom you’re listening. They are basically perspectives you choose to take, and we’re constantly being fed certain perspectives. There are a lot of ways to hear good perspectives: you can read memoirs, you can watch inspiring movies about people overcoming adversity, and some people even turn to religion. You just want to feed yourself things that are consistent with the viewpoint that you find helpful.

Nonetheless, it is still hard to believe stress is good for yourself….

If you think that stress is really bad for you, you already believe that how you think and feel has a powerful effect on your well-being because stress is only a perception. People who are the most resistant to it actually already believe that how they think and how they feel affect their well-being.

Since the book came out, the resistance I commonly get is almost always from people who, like me, were taught that people are victims of their lives and that they need to be lectured about how bad and unhealthy their lives are. That’s sort of our job as helpers—to make sure people know how dangerous stress is and reduce it.

However, the main resistance is related to giving up the fantasy that there’s a version of your life waiting for you that isn’t stressful, and if you just do life right, then you can have that life. That’s the real resistance. It’s a very seductive belief/fantasy to have.

Remembering values

In your book, you recommend that readers think about their important values as a part of mind intervention exercises. Do you do that, too?

I think about my values every day even before I get out of my bed. It only takes a minute or two to do a value reflection. I don’t want to get out of bed and immediately check my email or talk to my husband without knowing how I want to face the world today.

It’s one of the best, most supportive things, and people can do it in a lot of different ways. You don’t have to write about it; you can think about it. In my classes I give people bracelets that say “remember your value.” I get the most feedback from people who do that more than any other thing I’ve told my students to do. There’s something about identifying your values, and they are such great resources.

Is there any other thing we can do to better deal with stress?

It’s also important to have relationships in which you can talk about your challenges and how you are overcoming them. I’m lucky enough to have a couple of colleagues with which I’ve established such a relationship, and it’s kind of a safe place to talk a lot more openly about the challenges we face.

Wanting to help others also provides an extra sense of energy, hope, and courage that proves to be beneficial to one’s mindset. When people are overwhelmed by small stressors during the day, they feel like they are not being supported.

However, if you can look around and say that I want to do one thing to help someone else out, it actually is like taking a pill and changes what’s happening in your brain. I realized that it can sound trite, but when people actually do it, it works.

Who could get the most benefit from mindset intervention?

My experience is that the people who immediately benefit and have a mindset change are the ones who showed up to my class with a very recent traumatic experience or loss or are going through a very difficult situation when they’re in my class. They’re going to be the most helpful when people are dealing with a large amount of stress, rather than smaller, everyday stress. It’s easier to resist it if your life is actually going really well.

I also encourage people to talk about their stress with other people—to be more visible about their challenges and how they are working through them, and that’s part of the mindset interventions.

Do you feel that these people who have succeeded were able to unconsciously find the best way for them to work with stress?

Yes, I think people who are truly successful in the sense that they’ve created a life that is consistent with their values offer the world what they want to feel good about the choices they’ve made in their lives. You often need stress to even realize that this is what you want.

There was a recent study that looked at people who are the most generative in mid-life.

They’re successful in a particular way—not that they have money in the bank, but people around them are glad they exist because they’re doing something of value. Those are the people who like to tell me the story of their life and their overcoming adversity. There really is something about having to confront stress—whether it’s inner stress or anxiety or depression—and you have to find a way to deal with those turbulent emotions.

I think you can also be successful in other ways while dealing terribly with stress. You can make a lot of money, yet still be miserable and feel conflicted about your values as well as have a very limited social network.