The People's Perspective on Medicine

Show 1009: The Upside of Stress (Archive)

How can you turn stress into an ally to improve performance and help you stay healthy?
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The Upside of Stress (Archive)

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Stress is bad for our health, isn’t it? It has been linked to everything from psoriasis to asthma to heart disease. It may even make us more susceptible to cancer.

Is the Emphasis on Stress Reduction Misplaced?

It is no wonder, then, that wellness advocates emphasize stress reduction, whether it is yoga, meditation, a walk in the park or petting a dog or cat. There is nothing wrong with such practices; but what if we could utilize stress to overcome problems and live healthier lives instead of allowing it to undermine us? What is the upside of stress?

Dr. Kelly McGonigal has studied stress responses and says stress can help us perform better in challenging situations. Learn how to handle it to your best advantage.

This Week’s Guest:

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She is also a fitness instructor and a meditation teacher. Her books include The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Her most recent book is The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.

Her website is www.kellymcgonigal.com

To follow her on Twitter: @kellymcgonigal

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free for four weeks after the date of broadcast. After that time has passed, digital downloads are available for $2.99. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

Buy the CD

Read Dr. McGonigal’s book and listen to her interview on the CD with our Listen & Read offer.

Download the mp3

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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Do you find a difference between approaching brief, short-term blasts of adrenaline as opposed to the long-term drag of cortisol? I’m sure cortisol serves a purpose, but I’d like to be able to cut it back.

I find myself wondering if the physiological benefits McGonigal mentions when we choose to meet stress with a tend and befriend approach — that we reduce stress hormones and increase feel-good hormones–may help to explain why women tend to live longer than men — our society tends to reward women more than men when we choose to give care to others.

Also, my 12 Step experience (to recover from mental illness) has taught me there is no way to avoid feelings. The whole question is which feelings, and whether my principle of selection is self-centered or loving. Many feelings deserve only to be suppressed. Constructive feelings are caring (think here of McGonigal’s verbs tend and befriend). If I really understand and care for the true values in life, I will always have more important things to think about than how I feel. The important thing is to cultivate attitudes [tending and befriending] rather than focusing on feeling good.

I think it is interesting that Dr. McGonigal herself suffers from anxiety. It adds to her credibility. I found the physiological information interesting and the “tend and befriend” response is something I and many others experienced first hand after the September 11th attacks.

I really get the aikido analogy, but am wondering: Much of our stress response is established early in life, along with our relational style. For some people, their experiences result in serious disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder or PTSD. Putting adrenalin to good use before a test or presentation is one thing, I can’t help but think that much stress is more relational than situational and that changing your response is going to be a bit more complicated for people with early and/or ongoing relational challenges. For one thing, it will have to go deeper. Thoughts?

one may have to go deeper; however, suspecting GAD, am eager to give it a try.
like peeling an onion, layer by layer, here a little, there a little. is this life not all prep work anyway?

As a person who normally thrives on stress, I agreed with most of the doctor’s points. And a positive attitude does go a long way to making stress palatable.

I wish she had focused more on coping with long-term, open-ended stress. I’ve been the main caregiver for my 95-year old father for several years and, much as I love my father, it’s taken a huge toll, both mental and physical. Care-giving can be very detrimental to health, especially for senior caregivers, usually women. Perhaps you could devote a future program to that topic.

Listening to Dr. McGonigal describe the different types of stress I was disappointed that she didn’t address how long term stress affects the body. I am a 72 year old care giver to my husband who is being treated for metastasized renal cancer. Before his diagnosis i was extremely healthy; attended a gym, did yoga, and took no medications. After 4 years of continued caregiving including several emergency hospital visits etc. and total responsibility for all of his needs i have developed stomach problems. Having practiced Christian meditation for 20 years i do know how beneficial meditation is. However, the continuous toll of stress has finally sent me to a doctor who has prescribed Zantac. So far it has not been effective and am now trying Hydrochloric Acid which seems to be working.
Do you or Dr. McGonigal have any suggestions to handling long term stress.?

Gratitude definately plays a part in relief of anxiety & stress as it is impossible to be praiseful & fearful at the same time . When I am anxious I start thanking God that he is in control & I am not, thanking Him for my many blessings & I can feel the stress melt away. Gratitude puts things in perspective for me, which is often my problem. Looking at the big picture is is very helpful; how important will this be in 24 hours, 1 week, or a year from now. Praise truly is the ladder out of the pit.

Thank you. That is well said. I am going to print it.

Dr. McGonigal presented a fabulous review of the current knowledge on stress
and anxiety.
Wonderful to learn of its benefits, and especially useful– how we can increase them by reframing our perspective.
The mind is truly an incredible thing!

I just caught the end of this discussion, but I just want to add my thoughts. This is one of the most useful, wise pieces of information I have heard in ages on popular media.

I completely agree with Dr. McGonigal. Stress will always be a part of our lives. Dr. McGonigal’s synthesis of the physiological, psychological and spiritual ways (I say spiritual because I believe a true synthesis occurs in a mysterious way that is spiritual) of dealing with stress is invaluable in helping everyone deal with stress, and make it a growth experience rather than something that can destroy us. The physiological and psychological aspects are important because they help concretize what might be just a spiritual approach (like prayer).

IMO, though it is invaluable and completely necessary, we need more than prayer—we need INFORMATION! Thank you!

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