What We Learned About Stress from Health Psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal

When polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship got stuck in pack ice on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914, he did the only thing he could do: he kept going. Even when his ship was crushed, leaving him and his crew to camp on the ice in Antarctica for months, he kept going. What choice did he have?

We are all facing a Shackleton moment right now. No matter how many plans we laid out for 2020, no matter how much research and data we pruned from our successful prior years, none of us anticipated what we are facing today. This is the world’s way of showing us that the processes we’ve always relied on just won’t cut it anymore. We need to be quick on our feet and adjust to the new world – one with COVID-19 in it. There is no going back to the way we used to operate.

This new reality is stressful for the vast majority of us. It’s like the entire globe’s rug has been pulled out from under us and we’re left struggling to find our footing and continue ahead. The stress most of us are experiencing can be paralyzing, but there are ways to actually use it to our benefit. Health Psychologist and author of The Willpower Instinct (2011), The Upside of Stress (2015), and The Joy of Movement (2019) Dr. Kelly McGonigal came to Studio/E – virtually – to share with our community what stress does to our mind and body, and how we can use it to our advantage and get to the other side of this crisis.

If you’re stressed right now, we see you, and we’re right there with you. We’re going to share the best things we learned from Dr. Kelly McGonigal because becoming literate on what stress does to your body and brain can help you tackle whatever stressful events lie ahead.

Stress and grief do opposite things to your body and brain, and most of us are experiencing both right now.

Stress is what arises in your body and brain when something you care about is at stake and you recognize there’s something you can do about it. Grief, on the other hand, ignites a desire to disengage from suffering or pain. And right now, many of us are in alternating states between something in our bodies telling us to rise to the challenge (stress) and our motivational systems shutting down and encouraging us to withdraw and retreat (grief). This can be entirely discombobulating, but understanding stress and grief can help you navigate these polarizing feelings.

Stress is the natural human capacity to respond in moments that matter. We often experience stress (not just during pandemics) because we have lives that are meaningful. By recognizing and listening to our stress, we can actually become motivated to take action. This is positive news!

Meanwhile, grief can put your brain in a state that makes it difficult for you to physically move, so overwhelming it can be. It actually undermines the motor system of your brain and can immobilize you as a form of self-defense or self-retreat. Kelly has a trick to get yourself out of it: MUSIC. Music is an invitation to move – even in states of grief or depression. She suggests creating a playlist of music that puts you in a better mood. When listening to it, one of the first things you’ll be compelled to do is move. Your body will physically crave movement once your brain registers this music. It doesn’t matter if you’re dancing or stretching or running up and down a flight of stairs – a three-minute burst of movement will initiate a mood reset and will allow you to face whatever worries you have from a bigger perspective. Plus, it’ll prepare you to approach your next challenge with a greater sense of optimism.

So if you’re experiencing grief, listen to music. Dance. You’ll feel better. If you’re experiencing stress, listen to it. Do what your brain is asking you to do because it’s recognized something you care about is at stake.

You can be good at stress.

Stress is a biological mechanism for both adapting to life and learning from experience. Psychologists believe that humans have multiple responses to stress, not just the fight-or-flight response we’re all accustomed to. For example, one response humans have is the ability to rise to the challenge and learn and grow from the stressful experience. Being good at stress is not about reducing or avoiding it, but rather accepting that life is stressful and you can’t always control how stressful it will become. Instead, we can look at ways to remain engaged and harness the strengths that stress can bring out of us, even if there’s nothing good about the stressful situation itself.

One of the best ways to learn how to do this is through mindset. You can create a flexible stress response by choosing to put your attention on the positive during moments of stress. So, rather than becoming paralyzed by dread or flying into a fit of rage, we can actually use our stress as a moment to slow down, think about what matters most (i.e. what has initiated this stress in the first place), and respond in ways that are healthy and get us closer to the people and goals we care about.

Here are some healthy (unscientifically named) stress responses:

Bigger Than Self Response:

With this response, we recognize that the moment is bigger than us. We are not the only ones struggling, we are not the only ones who have been through this, people in our lives care about us and will help us through this, and some people have worse circumstances than we’re in – and we have something to offer. When we recognize that stress is bigger than us, Kelly says our bodies and brains put us into a state, driven by hormones and brain chemicals, that encourages connection with others. This response makes us want to be around others and increases the pleasure we get from cooperation, helping others, and even receiving help. Biologically speaking, this response actually turns stress into a yearning for connectedness so that we don’t have to go through something stressful alone. That is pretty remarkable.

Something Good is Possible Response:

This response ignites the caregiving systems of the brain, which gives us energy to help others and provides us with pleasure from doing so. It also activates the movement system of the brain which helps us stay engaged rather than give up. This stress response dampens fear, activates hope, and is what Kelly calls an antidote to despair. We’re seeing this all over the place today. While we’re all recognizing our lack of control and certainty, many people are turning to hope and looking for actions they can take to help others. Examples include doing grocery runs, sending messages of support, and making face masks.

The Caregiving Response:

According to Kelly, there are three dimensions to how connection and caregiving creates resilience: Being open to receiving help and acknowledging that none of us can do it alone; helping others (when we sense ourselves as a resource for others, it drives courage); and seeing and celebrating the kindness of others. The caregiving response is all about making us feel good about humanity. Kelly says one of the most destructive responses to stress (destructive to the point that it’s bad for your immune system!) is the threat response where you feel others cannot be trusted and that you’re in it alone. The Caregiving Response is, according to Kelly, one of the best ways to be good at stress during the current crisis.

Now is the time to write the story you’ll tell about how you survived the COVID-19 pandemic.

The stories we tell are important. Once we enter our new normal, you will have a narrative around how you survived this crisis, and now is the time to write it. What would you be proud of saying you did to survive? What choices will you make today that will encompass your survival story? According to Kelly, being good at stress right now is leaning into the things that bring you strength and joy. Whether it is making music, cooking, writing, running, giving – make meaning out of this experience by identifying what it will be that’ll get you to the other side.

We are all in this Shackleton moment together. While it may be affecting some more than others, nobody is exempt from the changes this new world will continue to bring  mn vn nm vnmv nvnvnbvn. Just remember: you can be good at stress. You can write your own narrative. You will get through this.

A special thanks to Dr. Kelly McGonigal for teaching us all of this valuable information about stress!

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