Why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it)

During a conversation at the launch of our Business Book Club, someone asked why many people stay where they are in business and in life when it seems so obvious to external eyes that they need to change what they’re doing.

Kelly McGonigal’s ‘The Upside of Stress: why stress is good for us (and how to get good at it)’ [Penguin Random House UK, 2015] suggests some answers to that question. Change causes us to experience stress and we have been told to believe that stress is bad for us – so we avoid it.

When we choose to exercise our bodies to maintain our physical fitness, we usually expect and put up with the muscle soreness that’s a sign we’ve used muscles we don’t usually use and that we’re getting stronger. We don’t usually cease all physical exercise because we can’t tolerate that discomfort. So what happens when we put ourselves out of our mental comfort zone, try something different and experience emotional fear that we experience through symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, deep anxiety? Often we’ll quit. We feel stressed and think it must be bad for our health.

In her book, McGonigal recounts a whole catalogue of scientific research studies that evidence the fact that stress can actually be good for us if we can learn to recognise the symptoms and use them to our advantage.

I’ve posted before about the benefits of a growth mindset and stepping out of our “comfort zone”. What I love about this book is that it describes in layman’s terms through many stories (so that we can understand it) the neuroscience that explains how and why we do that and the massive benefits we can expect.

For example, typically we assume that a racing heart, sweaty palms and butterflies in our stomach must be bad for us. We instinctively get into our primitive fight or flight mode when once upon a time our only choice was to flee the bear chasing us through the woods or stand up and fight it.

But McGonigal shows how, with mindful interventions, we can transform our instinctive reaction of fear into courage, our feeling of threat into challenge, our choice to numb ourselves in isolation into a choice to connect with others. She show us through the research stories that the tension and other side effects we experience under stress are actually our body’s way of offering us more energy and that we have the choice how we will use that energy in our lives and our businesses.

When setbacks occur and we experience the discomfort of what we label “stress”, will we shrink back and stay fixed where we are?

This mindset can creep in whenever we are pursuing any goal or change that is beyond our current abilities. “Too often” McGonigal writes, “we perceive setbacks as signals to stop – we think they mean something is wrong with us or with our goals. This can trigger a vicious cycle of self doubt and giving up.” But if we can learn instead to find and draw on the resources to turn these feelings into more positive action, we will learn and grow as human beings and in our business.

One study showed that a willingness to ask for help was the most important thing that had allowed the research participants to achieve success through adversity. It’s OK to ask for help!

No one would deliberately choose adversity in their lives but the stories McGonigal tells report many benefits experienced from stress such as:

-Personal strength-Increased appreciation for life-Spiritual growth-Enhanced social connections and relationships with others-Identifying new possibilities and life directions.

Why not ask for help? A great coach can help guide you, helping you channel your feelings of stress into energy you can use to change for your own good – and for the good of those around you.