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If you follow me on Instagram, then you know I’m a huge bookworm.

Last week I finished up this book, The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it by Kelly McGonigal, PhD, and a lot of you were interested in hearing some of my main takeaways in order to help you understand and relate better to the stress in your life.

What I really liked about this book: It combines science and storytelling about how stress actually affects us, how it does more good than harm, and how to change your relationships with stress in order to benefit and grow from it.

Okay, let’s get down to it. Here are the takeaways that meant the most to me, really hit home, and helped me learn a new way to think about feeling stressed.

Note: The notes below are a combination of direct quotes, paraphrasing, and summarizing points to get the point across succinctly. If you find an idea interesting or want to know more I suggest you read the book.

  • Researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress was harmful.
  • The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.
  • The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.
  • How you think about and respond to stress both play an important role in how it affects you.
  • Stress is tied to meaning. You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.
  • We cannot always control the stress in our lives, but we can choose our relationships to it. It acknowledges that embracing stress is an act of bravery, one that requires choosing meaning over avoiding discomfort.
  • To be good at stress is not to avoid stress, but to play an active role in how stress transforms you.

Stress Mindset

  • When you view stress as helpful, it actually creates a new biological reality in our body – our body starts to respond differently.
  • This book talks a lot about stress mindset. A mindset is a belief that biases how you think, feel and act. It’s like a filter that you see everything through and is usually based on a theory of how the world works. Sometimes our mindset doesn’t feel like a choice that we make; it feels like an accurate assessment of how the world work.
  • To understand your stress mindset, notice how you think and talk about stress. Does it motivate you? Paralyze you?
  • Your stress mindset also influences how you react to other people’s stress. When other people complain about stress does it make you anxious?
  • The mindset shift that matters is the one that allows you to hold a more balanced view of stress – to fear it less, to trust yourself to handle it, and to use it as a resource for engaging with life.

Is Stress Toxic?

  • Most people view the stress response as a toxic state to be minimized, but the reality is not so bleak. It many ways, the stress response is your best ally during difficult moments – a resource to rely on rather than an enemy to vanquish.
  • When stress and anxiety are viewed as toxic states, we may turn t even more destructive behaviors in the attempt to protect ourselves or shelter those we care about.
  • In fact, the research shows that the most common effects of stress include strength, growth and resilience.
  • Stress leads to resilience.

A meaningful life is a stressful life

  • Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful.
  • Stress can point out the values you hold. When you reflect on your values during stressful times, it can shift your mindset to see this stressful experience as a chance to grow and lean on your values.
  • When you can’t control or get rid of stress, you can still choose how you respond to it. Remembering your values can help transform stress from something that is happening against your will and outside your control to something that invites you to honor and deepen your priorities.
  • Taking the time to fully process and make meaningful from what is stressful can transform it from something that drains you into something that sustains you.
  • It’s not about being untouched by adversity or unruffled by difficulties. It’s about allowing stress to awaken in you these core human strengths of courage, connection, and growth.

The costs of avoiding stress

  • Your body’s response to stress is actually biologically there to HELP you through a hard experience. When you try to tamper that down, “calm down”, or get rid of those feelings, you’re actually hindering your ability to draw on your body’s response as a resource to help you think clearly, have more energy, and rise to the occasion.
  • Psychologists have found that trying to avoid stress leads to a significantly reduced sense of wellbeing, life satisfaction, and happiness. Avoiding stress can also be isolating.
  • When you view stress as a problem an something to be avoided, anything in your life that causes stress (work, relationships, marriage) starts to look like a problem. If my job is stressful there’s something wrong with my job. If my marriage is stressful there’s something wrong with my marriage.
  • When you think life should be less stressful, feeling stressed can also seem like a sign that you are inadequate rather than evidence that you are human. If I was strong enough, smart enough, good enough, this wouldn’t be that hard.
  • When you stop resisting it, stress can fuel you.
  • Avoiding what makes you stressed or anxious doesn’t get RID of that stress or anxiety but rather reinforces your fears and increases worrying about future anxiety.

People who thrive under stress

  • They saw stress as a normal aspect of life and didn’t believe it was possible or even desirable to have an entirely comfortable, safe life. Instead, they viewed stress as an opportunity to grow.
  • They built a reserve of strength that supported them in facing the challenges in their lives.
  • Hardiness – the courage to grow from stress.
  • Seeds of resilience coexist with suffering.
  • Individuals who are resilient have a strong heart, courage, and self-confidence in the face of challenges. They have trust in the future and in other people. They do not lose hope, they find meaning in their problems.

How stress helps you rise to the occasion

  • When it comes to performing under pressure, being stressed is better than being relaxed.
  • Choosing to see stress as helpful makes it so.
  • Choosing to view anxiety has excitement, energy, or motivation can help you perform to your full potential.
  • When you need to take a leap and want to do well, don’t worry about forcing yourself to relax. Instead, embrace the nerves, tell yourself that you’re excited, and know that your heart is in it.
  • The first signs of anxiety aren’t signaling that you’re about to blow it, but the nerves are proof that you’re getting ready to excel.
  • None of the studies showed that performance was enhanced by the absence of stress. In fact, if we think that all stress sabotages success, then we may rely on stress-reducing strategies that get in the way of peak performance.
  • Psychologists found that the most important factor in determining your response to pressure is how you think about your ability to handle it.
  • During a stressful time, focus on your resources.- acknowledge your personal strengths, think about how you have prepared for a particular challenge, recall times in the past when you overcame similar challenges, imagine the support of your loved ones.
  • When you feel your heart pounding, it’s your body’s biological response to send more oxygen to your body and brain. This helps you think clearer!
  • When you feel your heart pounding or your breath quickening, realize that it’s your body’s way of trying to give you more energy. If you notice tension in your body, remind yourself that the stress response gives you access to your strength. Worry less about trying to make these go away and focus more on what you are going to do wit the energy, strength, and drive that stress gives you.
  • The resources you need are already inside of you. Embracing stress is a radical act of self-trust: view yourself as capable and your body as a resource.

Connection and caring during stress helps

  • People who feel alone in their stress are more likely to become depressed and to rely on avoidance coping strategies.
  • Those who understand that suffering is part of everyone’s life are happier, more resilient, and more satisfied with life.
  • If you struggle with avoidance, self-doubt, or feeling overwhelmed, helping others is a great way to access your inner resilience and is one of the most powerful motivation boosters you can find.
  • It’s exhausting approaching the goals in your life from a place of constantly trying to prove yourself, your worth, your capability. Instead, view your efforts as serving a purpose greater than yourself.
  • It’s more about how you see your role within your community – what you want to contribute and create, than achieving personal success.
  • Many make the mistake that helping others depletes our resources, but the science shows that caring actually amplifies our resources.
  • Caring creates hope and courage. Caring can create resilience and provide hope even in the most unexpected places.
  • Turn isolation into common humanity. Remember how many other people are lying awake at night, anxious about the next day’s challenge. When you get out of bed in the morning remind yourself that you’re a part of a group of people who choose to face that day’s challenge.
  • The most important sources of resilience: knowing that you aren’t alone in your suffering and being able to help others.

How adversity makes you stronger

  • It’s the difficult times that give rise to growth. In fact, it’s the natural human capacity to grow during times of stress.
  • Adversity can create resiliency and personal growth.
  • To find the courage to grow from stress, you need to believe that something good can come from your suffering.
  • People are not doomed to be damaged by adversity.
  • Going through something difficult actually makes you less likely to catastrophizes which gives you greater strength.
  • When life tests your strength, you are more likely to know you can handle the next challenge and that your past experience can become a resource for coping.
  • Too often we perceive setbacks as a signal to stop – we think they mean something is wrong with us or our goals. Instead, view setbacks as inevitable, and understand that hitting an obstacle means it’s time to draw on your resources.
  • The science of post-traumatic growth doesn’t say that there is anything inherently good about suffering. Nor does it say that every traumatic event leads to growth. When any good comes from suffering, the source of that growth resides in you – your strengths, your values, and how you choose to respond to adversity. It does not belong to the trauma.

Do I need to be relentlessly positive?

  • “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To my ears, benefit-finding sounds like the kind of positive thinking that tries to scurry away from the reality of suffering: Lt’s look for the bright side so we don’t have to feel the pain or think about the loss.
  • The research doesn’t suggest that the most helpful mindset is a Pollyannish insistence on turning everything bad into something good. Rather, it’s the ability to notice the good as you cope with things that are difficult.
  • Looking for the good in stress helps most when you are ALSO able to realistically acknowledge whatever suffering is also present.
  • Practice the art of benefit-finding. Think of it as an exercise in being able to hold opposite perspectives at once, rather than an exercise in purely positioning thinking. you don’t need to talk yourself out of any distress you feel, or disregard any negative outcomes you’ve experienced. You’re simply choosing to put your focus, for a brief period of time, on the good you see in the situation or in yourself as you cope with it.

Transform stress: Tell your own story of growth & resilience

  • There is power in the stories we tell and in the stories we pay attention to.
  • We all tell stories and the stories we choose to tell can create a culture of resilience. How do you tell the stories of your family? Your company? your own life? Make room for stories that reflect the strength, courage, compassion, and resilience in yourself and in your community.
  • Choosing to see the upside in our most painful experiences is part of how we can change our relationships with stress.

Final Reflections

  • Choose to remember your personal values so that it’s easier to find meaning in everyday stress.
  • Have open and honest conversations about your struggles so that you feel less alone in your suffering.
  • View your body’s stress response as a resource so that you can trust yourself to handle the pressure and rise to the challenge. 
  • Go out of your way to help someone else so that you can access the biology of hope and courage.
  • Any moment can become a turning point in how you experience stress, if you choose to make it one.

How do you view stress? It’s definitely something I thought was to be avoided at all costs, until I read this book. Now instead of stressful experiences feeling overwhelming and toxic, it feels more manageable, and dare I say … empowering.

Tell me in the comments – does viewing stress as a resource rather than a drain help you?