What if stress is just as bad as you think?

Why a shift in mindset can change your life.

What if stress is just as bad as you think? What if this opens the door for stress to be great?

It has long been known that our human minds and our thoughts hold great power over our lives and also our bodies. Especially those thoughts that we hold to ourselves for a very long time. They turn into deep belief systems and unconsciously regulate our patterns.

So, why should this be different when it comes to stress? Why should a switch in perception not also change our bodily stress response to the good? Let’s see how this works!


Kelly McGonigal and her incredible research

Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and researcher, regularly discovers amazing new patterns in her research and creates practical solutions for all of us that we can use in everyday life.

In her TED Talk in June 2013, she shared a study that tracked 30.000 people for 8 years. They had asked these people how much stress they had experienced in the previous year and if they believed that stress was harmful to their health.

The research found that people who had a lot of stress in the previous year and believed stress to be harmful to their health had a 43% increased risk of dying. Stunningly enough, they also found that people who had experienced lots of stress in the previous year yet didn’t view it as harmful to their health, had the lowest risk of dying of all the people in the study.

So, is the belief that stress is bad for your health deadly? And how can you change your mind about it?

If you want to hear more about Kelly McGonigal and her own research, watch her Ted Talk.

What do you believe stress to be?

What is your own stress mindset? Do you believe stress to be harmful? Do you feel like stress has a bad affect on your productivity, efficiency, health, and vitality?

Or do you feel like stress enhances your performance, makes you more productive, increases your level of concentration and improves your health and vitality?

This differentiation was introduced by psychologist Alia Crum to help you become aware of what you believe stress to be. So, what is it for you? (see McGonigal 2016, S.14)

Stress responses and their great benefit to our lives

Fight or flight

We all know this one. It’s this moment when you hear your heart pump in your ears and your inner peace slowly transform into energy and traction. But is this bad? Not at all! Without this response, you would have probably not made it to this day. It fires up your whole body, so you can act under the most obscure circumstances and save your life whenever you have to.


But why does it have this bad reputation? Endocrinologist Hans Selye conducted research on lab rats and injected them with multiple substances and forced them into any kind of uncomfortable experience, such as exercising without rest or setting them under extreme heat. Eventually, the rats died, and he figured that they did not die because of the injections but because of what they were experiencing. He called this “stress”. Unfortunately, this word was kept very open and not only included the extreme torture he had forced upon the rats but also any kind of uncomfortable situation that could potentially happen to us. Later, he made the distinction between “good stress” and “bad stress,” yet the fear of stress was already so on our minds that this did not really make a difference to most of us.

To cut this short, extreme experiences and pain, such as abuse, trauma, or torture, indeed harm your health. Yet, a “normal stressful experience” does not have to do so if you don’t believe it to do so. (see McGonigal 2016, S. 39 ff.)

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Challenge response

The challenge response, just as the fight-or-flight response, gives you energy and helps you enhance concentration, so you can perform better under stress. Whenever your life is not on the line, this is your bodily response. The challenge response has you move into a state of flow where calm and precise performance is possible and enhanced concentration can be witnessed. This is a state that many athletes and surgeons describe while performing their work.

Tend-and-befriend response

Do you believe that stress makes you social? Unknown to most people, oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, is part of our stress response. It does not only encourage us to seek connections and get us social, but it also strengthens our hearts.

The tend-and-befriend response encourages you to protect the people you care about and gives you the courage to do so, so Kary McGonigal.

Learn and Grow

You can literally feel your energy slowly draining after a stress response and begin to crave deep rest. In this period, emotions are often experienced very intensely, and we have a hard time calming down our minds. Yet, this is an amazing bodily response because it has us reflect on what happened and make sense of our experience. It’s a great opportunity for learning and growth.

If you want to find out more about the different stress responses, see Kelly McGonigal’s book starting on page 47. (see McGonigal 2016, S. 47 ff.)

A meaningful life is a stressful life

I know this may sound odd to you, but think about it. Would you ever feel stressed about something you do not care about? Maybe we don’t enjoy today’s project or we don’t like our team, yet we still stress about it because we see our part in it and we want to achieve our goals. Therefore, we are not careless about it; it still holds meaning for us. (see McGonigal 2016, S. 65 ff.)

Growth Mindset

If you have never heard of this concept, this may be one you want to consider and evaluate for yourself. Many people believe that their intelligence and capabilities are fixed. If they fail, they are the problem; not good enough and simply not clever enough to have done better. What a painfully hard way to live. Especially if we consider the fact that this is nothing but a belief.

So, developing a growth mindset entails shifting your thinking to accept that intelligence and talent can be developed over time through training and effort. You are good enough as a person. You may just need to improve a specific skill or enhance your performance, yet never yourself as a person. Also, people with a growth mindset do not view failure as a sign to stop trying or proof that they are not good enough. They see it as an opportunity to learn and grow, and they get themselves into whatever it is to make it possible.

What is your mindset? And does it serve you well?

How can I change my mindset?

Kelly McGonigal describes various mindset interventions in her book, and what they have in common are these three aspects that make every intervention as productive and effective as possible.

1) Acquiring the new point of view

Before you can transform your mindset, you first have to become aware of your current mindset and, of course, learn something about the new one. This can be done through videos, articles, books, speeches, and much more. It’s only important that the person receives enough information to form a clear picture of this mindset within their heads and understand what it is all about.

2) Carrying out exercises that require you to adapt and apply the new mindset

The second step is to apply your newly gained knowledge. Therefore, it is important that the person receives the opportunity to perform an exercise that urges them to adapt and apply the new mindset. We all hold great wisdom within our minds, yet how much do we practice? Therefore, this step is urgent!

3) Share the idea with others

The final step includes communication with other people about the new experience. This gives us time to reflect and rethink what we have learned and applied, and it helps us understand why we want to use it and how we can use it in the future. It is also a great experience to listen to other people and their experiences, so you may want to learn from their wisdom too.

If you want to find out more about the mindset interventions, see Kelly McGonigal’s book starting on page 30. (see McGonigal 2016, S. 30 ff.)

Practical experiences to learn from

1) How do you deal with stress?

If you are unsure about your stress mindset, take 10 minutes out of your day and grab a journal. Think about the stressful events that you have had in the past seven days. What were your thoughts? Did you have any fears about your health? Did you believe it to be harmful or helpful before, during, and after these events?

2) Establish your values

If you have been feeling a lot of stress lately, a great way to help you see the meaning it carries is to get clear about your values. Why is your family meaningful to you? Which place do friends hold in your life? What values do you live by and how do they affect your levels of stress?

The goal is not to eliminate stress, the goal is to find meaning and start to embrace it!

3) Change your mindset

Use the three phases described above to transform your stress mindset. Use Kelly McGonigal’s book or her TED Talk or something completely different to learn more about stress and the new mindset. And try it out in the next situation that unfolds for you. You have to give a speech in front of your team tomorrow? Try it out! You have to take an exam tomorrow? Try it out! You have to juggle the tasks of everyday life? Try it out!

What if I only take one piece home today?

If you only take one piece of this article home today, may it be this: Stress is just as bad as you believe it to be. So, you might want to reconsider your position on it. 

As we have seen, there is great new research in the field of stress. If you want to learn more about this subject, I highly encourage you to read Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Upside of Stress.”

Love & Hugs



McGonigal, Kelly (2016): The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, Reprint, Avery.

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