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A look at why stress may be good for you

Author says that by recognizing and working with stress, rather than trying to ignore it, we can achieve more

Kelly McGonigal is a convert. A health psychologist who teaches at Stanford University, for years she had held to the conventional view that stress is bad for you.

But when a few years ago McGonigal came across research that suggested stress is bad for you only when you believe it to be damaging, she had to reconsider. Indeed, the same research found that people who lived with stress — but did not view it as harmful — were the healthiest people of all.

McGonigal started digging deeper into the subject, and the result is her new book, "The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It," published by Avery. It contends that by recognizing and working with stress, rather than trying to ignore or suppress it, we can perform better and achieve more.

It is a bold and counterintuitive thesis, and she makes quite a good case for it. In particular, she forces the reader to take a more nuanced view. For example, there is more than one kind of response to stress: There are alternatives to "fight or flight." We can also rise to the challenge.

What is more, some of our fundamental concepts could be misconceived. The Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye carried out significant research into the subject in the 1930s, studying the behavior of rats in experiments.

But, as McGonigal points out, some of these tests involved randomized electric shocks and near-death by drowning, hardly the common experience of many humans. The stress the rats endured was of the worst kind. What safe conclusions should we draw from that?

McGonigal says that stress is an important signifier — not something to be ignored. "You don't stress out about things you don't care about, and you can't create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress," she writes.

She suggests a three-step approach to change our mind-set: Acknowledge stress when you experience it, welcome the stress by recognizing that it's a response to something you care about, then make use of the energy it gives you.

McGonigal has the zeal of a convert, which possibly leads her to believe that she has cracked the problem. There are some big claims. Working better with stress "could even mean the difference between having a heart attack at 50 or living into your 90s," she says.

She acknowledges that not all life events can be managed away: "Not every trauma has an upside … you shouldn't force a positive interpretation on every instance of suffering." But only a few pages later she writes: "Choosing to see the upside in our most painful experiences is part of how we can change our relationship with stress."

"Stress is harmful, except when it's not," she concludes. But something is missing: any reference to the large body of work carried out by Michael Marmot over recent decades. He has shown that stress can be hard to avoid — or deal with — especially for those with lower status in an organization.

McGonigal does concede that stress can be harmful when three things are true: You feel inadequate to deal with it, it isolates you, and it feels meaningless and against your will. Unfortunately, for quite a lot of people at work, that unholy trinity can apply all too often.

Stefan Stern is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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