4 Things We Get Wrong About Stress, According To A Psychologist

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She has bachelor's degrees in journalism and english literature from Boston University.

Graphic by Lyuba Burakova / Stocksy

For Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., there's something off about the way we talk and think about stress: It's too one-dimensional and oftentimes too negative. The more negative impacts of stress aren't news to us, but is there an upside to stress?

When she sat down with mindbodygreen co-CEO Jason Wachob on an episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, they were sure to talk about just that. It turns out there are a few things we get wrong about this common feeling, and McGonigal thinks stress may actually need something of a rebrand.

McGonigal acknowledges that stress isn't always good and that it can interfere with our ability to be our best self, but simply considering stress to be all bad is looking at it too simply and neglecting the fact that stress is a big part of what makes us human. According to her, these are four of the biggest things we get wrong about stress:

1. It's not always a signal you're doing something wrong.

We have a tendency to assume stress inherently means there's something bad about how our life or our choices have gone, but that's not the truth. "People have this fantasy that if they could just get life right, they could have everything they want and none of the stress," said McGonigal.

The truth of the matter is that without stress, life wouldn't be the same: The man who coined the term, Hans Seyle, actually defined the absence of stress as death—so maybe we should stop dreaming about being stress-free and instead dream of managing stress.

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2. It can help us realize what's most important to us.

This may seem silly at first: Of course we all know what's important to us. But in stress we can see the things that trigger a physical response, and those are probably the most important things. According to McGonigal, "Stress is what arises in your brain and body when something that you care about is at stake," and to her, one of the "fundamental goods" of stress is how it allows us to tap into our priorities and passions.

3. There are multiple ways to deal with stress in a healthy way.

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Our limited view of stress is to blame for many of our misconceptions about the feeling. "We talk about stress in this very limited way—as if the body and brain have one way of responding to all things that we would call stressful," said McGonigal.

But the truth is we do have control over how we respond to the stress in our lives, and that science has shown there's a way to do it in a healthy and productive way. One of the strategies McGonigal recommends is trying to have a "bigger-than-self stress response," focusing on the idea that our problem is "not a do-it-yourself project" and that others are having similar experiences.

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4. If we respond right, we can use stress as a source of power.

Choosing to have a more calculated response to stress can help take it from debilitating to useful, by the simple nature of its motivational power. According to McGonigal, the right response can help us tap into our "capacity to have hope when things seem hopeless, to be catalyzed to action rather than paralyzed by despair." And that response isn't just imagined, but it can actually lead our brain to release hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and sometimes even endorphins that encourage us to use stress positively.

Stress management is an important part of a healthy life (both mentally and physically), and finding a way to harness the potential benefits of stress can be a strategy for stress management in and of itself. But if things do get too overwhelming, there are plenty of simple remedies that can help manage stress naturally.

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