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Best Books to Buy: “The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal -

This month’s book is The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good At It by Kelly McGonigal, PhD.

About the Book:
"The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal -

“The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful.”

True or False: “Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced, and managed.” Health Psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal gives it a resounding “False” and she’s got hundreds of studies and reams of data to back it up. Her position: if you think stress will kill you, it probably will – “The effect you expect is the effect you get.” But if you don’t, then you’ll enjoy:

  • Better health
  • Peak performance
  • Superior problem-solving skills
  • Strong social networks
  • Motivation
  • Concentration
  • Confidence
  • Resilience
  • Courage
  • The ability to learn and grow

This discovery ran counter to Dr. McGonigal’s training in medicine and psychology. Prior to the work that went into this book, she spent years counseling people on the dangers of stress and urged them to get more sleep, manage their time better and the rest of the shoulder-slumping bromides we’ve all heard for years. But once she expanded her research, she found countless studies showing that changing your mindset transforms stress from a “toxin” to be avoided into a tonic that leads to a better life.

Her findings are great news if only for the fact that the percent of people who actually succeed at stress-reduction is probably a tiny fraction of the perpetually frazzled populace who are trying. The key is in the way we frame the stressors in our lives. Instead of avoiding stress, she advocates embracing it. In fact, her findings support the idea that without stress, we stunt our ability to grow, thrive and find meaning in this world.

The key is in the way we frame the stressors in our lives.

But, Shouldn’t We Still Avoid Stress?

This is what we’ve been advised to do for most of our lives. Most of us can probably relate to clicking on articles or colorful infographics touting, “The 5 Top Ways to Avoid Stress” or “How to Sidestep Toxic Stress.”

So Dr. McGonigal commiserates with us: “It’s not at all uncommon to wish for a life without stress. While this is a natural desire, pursuing it comes at a heavy cost. In fact, many of the negative outcomes we associate with stress may actually be the consequence of trying to avoid it.” Which means we need to figure out how to harness this new attitude and use it.
Getting Good at Stress
“Embracing your anxiety can help you rise to a challenge, and even transform a typical fear response into the biology of courage.” The idea is to turn threats into opportunities and paralysis into action. It’s just a mindset.

Football players “described their pre-game stress as being ‘amped up’ and ‘excited.’” But when speaking of “the same adrenaline rush before exams, they used completely different language. Then it was ‘nerves,’ ‘anxiety,’ and ‘choking under pressure.’” But the same thing is going on in their bodies both pre-game and pre-exam.

The research says that kind of anxiety doesn’t hurt performance and can make us perform better. The trick is to embrace your pre-exam jitters and use them to your advantage.

The trick is to embrace your pre-exam jitters and use them to your advantage.

One thing she focuses on is transforming the classic “flight or fight” response into a “challenge response.” Fight or flight is good when you’re in extreme danger and it has served its evolutionary purpose, but for most of our dealings we’re not in mortal danger. Instead of putting up our fists or high-tailing it out the door, we can take that same rush of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone and dopamine and channel them into a focused “flow” state, that optimal experience described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal book of the same name. The chemicals we produce during stress makes it sound like we’re all doping without knowing it.

The best way to take advantage of this “challenge” response is to take stock of your resources. Ask yourself, “what am I good at?” She advises us to consider our personal strengths in these moments and, of course, one of our key resources is this wonderful chemical cocktail we get with the stress response. “Choosing to view a racing heart as a resource is more than a mindset trick… It can also change how you feel about yourself and about your ability to handle what life is asking of you. Most important it inspires action – and in this way, embracing anxiety helps you rise to the challenge.”

Tending and Befriending

This response has an evolutionary origin in caring for offspring, but it’s value is strikingly valid in the age of social media. Research indicates that consuming social media can result in depression and isolation. Sitting at computers by themselves, people feel pressure to post images and descriptions of happy, stress-free lives. And when others view these posts they view their lives as “less than” in comparison. In contrast, the “tend-and-befriend” response causes us to acknowledge our vulnerability and reach out to others.

Research indicates that consuming social media can result in depression and isolation.

At the heart of the success of this particular response (and heart is a good word for it) is reaching out and actually helping others as a way of reducing fear and increasing hope. “When oxytocin is released as part of the stress response, it’s encouraging you to connect with your support network. It also strengthens your most important relationships by making you more responsive to others.” Reflecting on how people often react to disaster, this rings true.

Consider the stories of runners rushing directly into the bomb site to help stricken Boston Marathon runners. The devastation of Hurricane Harvey in Houston was heartbreaking but the images of highways jammed with the boat trailers of people coming to help the victims was heartwarming. “If you struggle with avoidance, self-doubt, or feeling overwhelmed, helping others is one of the most powerful motivation boosters that you can find.” Which brings us to one of her key discoveries about dealing effectively with stress.

Living a Meaningful Life

“What are the best predictors of a meaningful life? Surprisingly, stress ranked high. In fact, every measure of stress that the researchers asked about predicted a greater sense of meaning in life. People who had experienced the highest number of stressful life events in the past were most likely to consider their lives meaningful.” This is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote of his years in Nazi death camps. He argued that we cannot avoid suffering. While in some of the worst circumstances imaginable, he focused on staying alive, and helping others stay alive with the hope of reuniting with his wife. He maintained that people must choose how to cope with suffering, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Whether you describe it as stress or suffering, Kelly McGonigal sees the connection. “Why are stress and meaning so strongly linked? One reason is that stress seems to be an inevitable consequence of engaging in roles and pursuing goals that feed our sense of purpose.”

People must choose how to cope with suffering, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose.

In order to clarify our own sense of purpose, Dr. McGonigal promotes the development of “bigger than self goals.” She advises readers to ask themselves what kind of impact they want to have on their friends, family, workplace or the world itself. Throughout the book, she punctuates the research and first person accounts with activities like this. For one that asks the reader to determine which values are most important to them, she provides an exhaustive list to choose from; Acceptance, Accountability, Adventure, and that’s just the start of the “As.” It’s a nice balance that lets the reader alternate between taking in the information and then applying it to their own life.

Bring Purpose to Improvement Efforts

Dr. McGonigal provides a wonderful example of how clarifying purpose can transform process improvement efforts. She cites an effort in the City of Louisville which was great to see since we’ve previously highlighted Mayor Greg Fischer’s incredible success using Lean Six Sigma to improve city processes. She highlights his efforts to improve safety on public transit after a shocking homicide that took place in the back of a city bus. “Part of the initiative included asking the city bus drivers to consider how they could play a role in protecting the wellbeing of their passengers, beyond the already-installed security cameras and emergency radios.”

Drivers decided they were going to become “safety ambassadors” which meant broadening their roles to help passengers feel seen and known. With this new sense of purpose the drivers began making eye contact with and saying hello to bus passengers. Safety improved but the impact on the drivers was an unexpected surprise. In a job with above average stress and burnout, reimagining “themselves as safety ambassadors changed the meaning of their jobs. They were serving the bigger-than-self purpose of supporting the mayor’s safety initiative and their community – and they got to connect to this goal every time someone boarded the bus.”

With this new sense of purpose the drivers began making eye contact with and saying hello to bus passengers.

When we work with Lean Six Sigma team leaders we ask them to define the higher purpose of their projects. The key question we ask them to pose is, “for the sake of what?” The idea is to take a simple measure, we’ll use the example of the “# of defective parts” in an automobile plant and ask that question until you get at the higher purpose such as, “keeping drivers mobile and safe.” This came up in Ken Miller’s wonderful treatise on improving government processes called We Don’t Make Widgets. In his book he promotes the 5 Whys to get at the ultimate outcome, or purpose, of the process.

McGonigal, Frankl and Miller come at this from different worlds and use different terms; “outcomes,” “purpose,” “mission” and “bigger-than-self” but the reality is the same. The other interesting thing is that when the corporate world focuses on a higher purpose or the greater community good this doesn’t just result in “feel good solutions.” McGonigal points out that, “Across industries, when leaders sought bigger-than-self solutions, the companies showed greater revenue growth, profits, and expansion.” We’ve certainly seen the devastation of a global financial collapse when the motive is purely profit with a total lack of purpose.

Across industries, when leaders sought bigger-than-self solutions, the companies showed greater revenue growth, profits, and expansion.

Her research included expanded findings beyond the personal or corporate spheres with a broader worldview of the impact of stress. Studies across 121 countries with 125,000 people uncovered, “To the researchers surprise, the higher a nation’s stress index, the higher the nation’s well-being. The higher percentage of people who said they had felt a great deal of stress the day before, the higher that nation’s life expectancy and GDP.” A strange and comforting paradox.

Changing Your Mindset

The way we think about stress is doesn’t seem like a choice to most of us. Kelly McGonigal calls this “mindset blindness.” In order to challenge this, she recommends we start noticing how we think about stress and what it does to us. Become mindful of how we react to others when they’re stressed and how the media refers to it. Once you become aware of how you’re reacting to stress, you can take a moment and decide how you want to proceed. Stress doesn’t disappear, and some of it can be harmful. The goal is to have a “more balanced view of stress” and use it to better navigate your way in the world.

Once you become aware of how you’re reacting to stress, you can take a moment and decide how you want to proceed.

Personal Takeaway

This book already helped me in my own intermittent struggles with insomnia. Instead of fretting about the lost hours of sleep, I used the wee-hours shot of adrenaline to read the rest of this book. I had energy the following day to draft the review because I was driven by our purpose here at Make it easy for everyone everywhere to build their problem solving muscles. Making stress work for you is a truly powerful problem-solving tool. Writing this review put me in a state of “flow” since I was excited to sharing it with friends, family and our learner community.

What Happens Now?

Kelly McGonigal has a name for the questions and activities she inserts for her learners to reframe their attitude towards the stressors in their lives – she calls them “mindset interventions.” Just reading the book is an intervention. You won’t be able to react to stress the same way once you’re aware of what’s really going on in your body. She’s got a TED talk – another intervention. Maybe this review is an intervention. The great news is that just being introduced to this concept makes a difference.

Her experience has given her great faith in what she calls the “magic of mindset interventions.” She knows that not everyone will remember all the studies she’s cited or the real life examples. She realizes not everyone will follow through on activities like setting your “bigger-than-life goals” and she “can live with that.” Her position is that even if you forget all the details, this will still “change how you see yourself and the world.”

About the Author:

Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. As a pioneer in the field of “science-help,” her mission is to translate insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support personal well-being and strengthen communities. Aside from The Upside of Stress, she is the author of the international bestseller The Willpower Instinct. Her 2013 TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” is one of the 20 Most Viewed TED talks of all time, with 10 million views.

Through the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism, she co-authored the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training and studies how social connection can promote health, happiness, and resilience. She also currently serves as the psychology consultant to The New York Times’ Education Initiatives, helping educators around the world interpret the news and opinions of the day from the lens of psychological science.

In her free time, she is a passionate advocate for animal rescue and volunteers as an adoption counselor for Best Friends Animal Society.

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

Who Should Read The Upside of Stress?

From the Page:

“The most important takeaway, to me, is that seeing the good in stress doesn’t require abandoning the awareness that, in some cases, stress is harmful. The mindset shift that matters is the one that allows you to hold a more balanced few of stress – to fear it less, to trust yourself to handle it, and to use it as a resource for engaging in life.”

Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 30 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Marriott International, Inc. build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.
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