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Education Bookcast

Jul 16, 2018

Stress is broadly understood to be a serious health risk and a destructive factor in many people's lives. It has been advertised as such for several decades. In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal explains how new research shows that stress may actually be something positive and life-enhancing rather than ruinous.

The most central concept is that of "stress mindsets". Similar to fixed vs. growth mindset as described in Carol Dweck's book (covered in the first episode of this podcast), stress mindsets concern one's beliefs about the effects of stress. People with a "positive stress mindset" believe that there can be benefits to stress, whereas those with a "negative stress mindset" - encouraged by ideas promulgated in the past few decades - believe that stress is uniformly bad for you. It turns out that merely believing something different about stress is enough to change its effects radically for the better.

The evidence on the so-called "upside of stress" takes many forms, but perhaps the most convincing evidence is endocrinological. McGonigal cites studies showing that people who have higher stress hormone concentrations following a car accident are *less* likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder; that the stress hormone dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a brain *steroid* (as in, it literally makes your brain grow); and that the ratio of DHEA to cortisol (another stress hormone, but not a steroid) is dependent on your *beliefs* about stress. (My overuse of asterisks hints at how excited I am.)

On of the most surprising findings is that stress and happiness are internationally positively correlated. (In case you're interested, the most stressed out country in the world is the Philippines. It's also one of the happiest.) How could this be? McGonigal explains that this relates to what stress is, psychologically speaking. Stress is a state we experience when something we value is at stake. In other words, a meaningful life cannot help being stressful, since in order to be meaningful, one must be working towards or fighting for something that one cares for. Low levels of stress are actually correlated with increased depression risk, and the explanation for this is likely to be similar.

Overall, then, a big change in the way we see stress is possible, and it carries great benefits.

Enjoy the episode.

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