Threat or Challenge?

The Surprising New Science of How We Think About Stress

Did you know that in the United States, stress is the 12th leading cause of death, ahead of AIDS and homicide? This is because stress causes high blood pressure, heart disease and myriad other problems.

But according to fascinating new research covered in Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress, this only tells half the story about stress. Her central argument comes down to this: how you think about stress matters. “When you change your mind about stress,” McGonigal says, “you can change your body’s response to it.”

Stressing About Stress

According to a massive research study at the University of Wisconsin, our attitudes about stress make it a killer. In the study, a sample of 30,000 people reported feeling high stress AND held a negative view of stress (reported that stress impacted their health a lot). In this group, participants had a 43% increased risk of premature death. It turns out stressing about stress is what makes 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. This feeling is not inherently good or bad; it’s data. It focuses our attention – in this case, on whatever we perceive to be putting something at risk – and motivates us to take action.

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.

It’s not just stress that has a message; all emotions are data. Check out the Emotoscope Feeling Chart for the messages of dozens of emotions.

Stress focuses our attention and give sus energy, but then we have a choice to make about how we interpret that signal. It’s a choice, it turns out, that completely transforms the effect stress has on us.

Challenge vs. Threat

People experience stress as either a challenge or a 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. This table shows the differences between the two pathways.


  • Increased cardiac efficiency 

  • Vasodilation (Increase peripheral blood flow)

  • More favorable emotions

  • Higher performance (accuracy, effectiveness, coordination)


  • Decreased cardiac efficiency 

  • Vasoconstriction (Decrease peripheral blood flow)

  • Less favorable emotions

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

A stress challenge energizes you; makes you more efficient, productive. A stress threat slowly kills you; inhibiting you in all sorts of ways. The difference, often, is simply how we think about what we’re facing.

“We’ve known for a long time when we change our thinking we can change our feelings,” says Josh Freedman, CEO of Six Seconds, “so it’s surprising to think about stress this way, but it makes perfect sense.”

The Role of Oxytocin

In the Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal talks about a little known stress bonus — oxytocin — released by the pituitary gland as part of the stress response. “The production of oxytocin drives you to seek support in time of stress, to 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. It may seem crazy to think about volunteering to help others or getting involved in relationships when you’re stressed. But this is exactly what the research is telling us: by changing our mindset about stress, listening to the nudge from our oxytocin and engaging in social activities, we can harness health benefits from stress.

McGonigal explains that human connection is “a built in mechanism for Stress Resilience.” To back her claim, researchers at Buffalo University in 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 a 0% increase. Bottom line—helping others reduces stress-related deaths. It turns the science of stress as a killer on its head.

Choose Yourself, Give Yourself, Transform Stress

“This research is more evidence to show the dramatic health benefits of the “Choose Yourself” part of the Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Model,” says Freedman. “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 others, 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 reframed your response from dread to anticipation? Rethink and choose your stress response. Your body is gearing up to meet a challenge and boosting your energy to rise up.  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 feelings 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.

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