– 31: The Upside of Stress with Kelly McGonigal

Today my guest is Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Kelly is a health psychologist and award-winning lecturer at Stanford University. A leading expert on the mind-body relationship, her work integrates the latest findings of psychology, neuroscience and medicine with contemplative practices of mindfulness and compassion from the traditions of Buddhism and yoga. She is the author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good For You, And How To Get Good At It, where she highlights new research indicating that stress can, in fact, make us stronger, smarter, and happier—if we learn how to embrace it.

In today’s episode, Kelly and I spoke about:

Her definition of stress and how it can actually be a benefit
The research surrounding stress and the idea of transforming stress instead of reducing it
Examples of how to transform the way we think about stress
Embracing the ‘Flow State’
How our culture of fear of discomfort holds us back.


Here is my conversation “The Upside of Stress” with the intelligent and revolutionary: Kelly McGonigal.
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Well, hello and welcome, Kelly McGonigal! How are you?
Kelly McGonigal: I’m doing great! Thanks for having me back.
CP: Great. It’s always so fabulous to talk to you and to connect with you. I’m super excited to get into this new material. One of the things I thought we would just launch in with was, the last time we talked, you had launched the book The Willpower Instinct, and you were working on the psychology and the science behind internal change. And I’m curious to see, just in your own life, how this work on stress has evolved from your first book and what your journey has been.
KM: Yes. So when I think about how all of the work that I’ve been doing—the willpower work, the stress work, and my work at the Stanford Center for Compassion, trying to help people cultivate greater compassion—I realize that everything I’ve been doing for the last 15 years or so has been about trying to help people accept inner experiences or life circumstances that they can’t really control. Whether that’s dealing with cravings in terms of addiction, difficult emotions like anxiety and anger or grief, or even how I got started, which was working with people with chronic pain, and finding a way to accept pain that you can’t fix or change or control.
And the funny thing is that, because of my training in psychology and medicine, I’ve kept one thing outside of that circle of acceptance, and that was stress. Somehow stress remains that inner experience, that enemy, that really was toxic, that we really did need to reduce or avoid or manage. And it took me until, really, just a couple of years ago to realize that everything that I’ve been saying about the best way to deal with and transform other difficult inner experiences—like pain and anxiety and grief—the same applied to stress. It’s a big mistake to spend your energy trying to suppress or trying to avoid, just because you find that experience distressing.
The same principles that I recommend for these other difficult inner experiences, of accepting and then transforming them, of using them as a catalyst for meaning or for connection with others, that same principle [applies] to stress. And it really took some of the science that was coming out in the last five years or so about stress mindsets to really confront me and realize that I had somehow created this enemy out of stress that was not serving people. We’re all stressed, and I think the idea that we could ever avoid it is probably fundamentally flawed.
CP: What is stress? I mean, you reference difficult emotions, and then there’s the whole physiology behind it. I’m curious to see what you’re calling “stress.” Is it a physiology thing? Or is it—
KM: Yes, it’s a tough question, because we use the word “stress” to basically describe everything we don’t want to experience. We will use the word “stress” to describe a delay in traffi…