Stress is getting a whole new look thanks to Kelly McGonigal in her latest book The Upside of Stress. How you think about stress matters. “When you change your mind about stress you can change your body’s response to it.”


Stressed to Death

We know that stressing is bad and it’s all over the news. But recent research takes stress to a new level.  It turns out that our attitudes about stress make it a killer.  Researchers at University Wisconsin Madison, a sample of 30k people reported feeling high stress AND held negative view of stress (reported that stress impacted their health a lot), participants had a 43% increased risk of premature death. It turns out — stressing about stress — make stress USA’s 12th biggest killer, greater than AIDS or Homicide.


Stress is a Message

Stress is a physical and emotional signal.  Stress means we care about something and it’s at risk. When we stress our heart rate increases, breathing becomes rapid, and neuro-hormones like adrenalin and oxytocin are released.  Stress can give you the energy to get things done and give you the drive to comfort and care for people close to you. Stress can be a benefit if we know how to take advantage of it, and the first step is simple: changing our thinking about our stress response.

In a 2011 Harvard’s “Social Stress Test” showed people who reframed their body’s stress response as helpful (functional and adaptive) rather than destructive had measurable health and task performance benefits.


Your Body On Stress

Stress in your brain and body activates the sympathetic–adrenal–medullary (SAM) axis following one of two stress response pathways: Challenge or Threat. This table shows the differences between the two pathways.

Challenge Stress Response

Threat Stress Response

increased cardiac efficiency

reduced cardiac efficiency

vasodilation (increase peripheral blood flow)

vasoconstriction (decrease peripheral blood flow)

more favorable emotions

less favorable emotions

higher performance (accuracy, effectiveness, coordination)

lower performance (impaired decision making, cognitive decline, increased cardiovascular disease)

People experience stress as either challenge or threat.  Challenge feelings happen when you feel you have enough resources to cope with the situation.  In contrast, when you feel the situation is too demanding, exceeding your resources, you experience threat.


Role of Oxytocin

In the Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal talks about little known stress bonus — oxytocin — released by the pituitary gland as part of stress response. “The production of oxytocin drives you to seek support in time of stress, tell someone how you feel, to be surrounded by people who care about you”

Oxytocin drives us to social connection. Oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels. It increases pain thresholds, exerts an anxiolytic-like effect and stimulates various types of positive social interaction. In addition, it promotes growth and healing.  If you feel stressed how can you possibly volunteer to help others or get involved in relationships?  This seems contradictory and hard to activate the positive effects of oxytocin.  But by changing our mindset about stress and listening to the nudge from our oxytocin and engaging in social activities we can harness health benefits from stress.

McGonigal explains human connection is “a built in mechanism for Stress Resilience.” To back her claim researchers at University Buffalo 2013 found stressed people suffering major life disruptors (financial, relationship, medical, career) had an increased likelihood of death 30% but stressed people who helped and were connected to others had 0% increase. Bottom line—helping others reduces stress related deaths.


“We’ve known for a long time when we change our thinking we can change our feelings,”

Joshua Freedman, CEO of Six Seconds, shared his thoughts about stress. “This research is more evidence to show the dramatic health benefits of “Choose Yourself” part of the Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Model.

McGonigal proposes that we rethink our stress response. Freedman explains how we can create this shift to turn stress into an a helpful resource:

“It’s really a process of navigating emotions, applying consequential thinking, and exercising optimism.  These are core competencies of Choose Yourself.”

But Freedman was most excited about using this research about stress to help ourselves and others. “It’s inspiring to see the research emerging to support ‘Give Yourself’ — the link between doing service for others and oxytocin.”  This is such an exciting time to be working in this domain–new discoveries about the brain can change the way we think about ourselves and  how we connect with ultimately leading to positive change in the world.


Stress – Think Again

So when your calendar is crammed, your inbox is overflowing, and you feel that sickening shake of stress—you can use this new data to take advantage of stress. What if you interpreted your response from dread to anticipation?  Rethink and choose your stress response.  Your body is gearing up to meet a challenge and to rising up to boost your energy.  Pay attention and shift your thinking:

Pounding heart?— You are preparing for action.

Breathing faster?— You getting more oxygen to your brain.

Blood surging?— You are dilating your blood vessels to increase flow.

With this shift, your body can experience similar to the conditions of people experiencing joy and courage.  Stress is an unshakable part of our lives today, let’s use it to our advantage.



McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and how to Get Good at it. Penguin, 2015.

Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677.

Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 417.

Poulin, M. J., Brown, S. L., Dillard, A. J., & Smith, D. M. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American journal of public health, (0), e1-e7.

Seery, M. D. (2011). Challenge or threat? Cardiovascular indexes of resilience and vulnerability to potential stress in humans. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 1603-1610.

Freedman, Joshua M. “Thinking about Stress” Personal interview. 7 June. 2015.

Patty Freedman

Director of Marketing at Six Seconds
Patty is a writer, researcher and specialist is visual communication. She is especially interested in neuroscience and culture.

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