The Upside of Stress

In The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D., she explains the phenomena of mindset blindness. Imagine the windshield on your car. When you’re driving, how often are you thinking about the windshield itself? Pretty rarely, right? Our mindset, which we can think of as the core beliefs that inform how we see the world, is a lot like our windshield. Most of the time we forget it’s there, but it plays an incredibly important role in how we get around.


McGonigal says the key to finding the upside of stress is in first reducing mindset blindness by remembering that it is ever-present. She calls this habit mindset mindfulness. Think for a moment about how an overly optimistic and overly pessimistic person sees their world. To the extent they can become self-aware, the overly optimistic person can benefit from a dose of negative pessimism and vice versa. Mindset mindfulness is the practice of expanding our perspective.


As should be no surprise, it may take a mindset intervention to help a person create a heightened degree of mindset mindfulness. In the book, she discusses a number of interesting studies addressing the short and long-term benefits of these interventions. When our perspective is broad, stress can actually become a growth opportunity. When our perspective is narrow, stress can be calcifying. Much of the prior work on stress and stress avoidance has only focused on the narrow, negative aspects.


As professionals, McGonigal’s work creates opportunities for both ourselves, our clients and our co-workers. If we know stress can be used to fuel personal growth, we should focus on practicing mindset mindfulness to broaden our own perspectives and those of others. There’s the added bonus of working through stressful situations together as well. There is no greater way to build trust than to overcome adversity collectively.


McGonigal is presenting some eye-opening work. This isn’t just standard self-help fare, she’s really breaking down what’s going on at the biological and psychological level behind our human stress responses. As Ray Dalio said in Principles, “stress + reflection = progress.” McGonigal offers a practical approach to understanding why Dalio’s observation rings so true. If you don’t want to start with the book, at least see her TED Talk for an overview. 


Here’s to 2019. May your stress be full of upside.

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