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Book Review

Upside of Stress

The Upside of Stress:

Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

by Kelly McGonigal

Avery 2015



The word 'stress' as it is used when referencing something that might affect health or well-being originated with Hans Selye in 1936 in an article in Nature. Selye was born in Vienna, Austria, or Komarno, Slovakia in 1907. He died in 1982. He did most of his important work on stress after leaving Europe in 1931 and while at McGill University in Canada. (I wonder how he would have looked at stress had he stayed in Europe and experienced life under Hitler's Nazism and later under Stalin's Communism.) McGonigal mentions Selye briefly:

THE LEGACY of Hans Selye lives on in stress research, which relies heavily on laboratory animals rather than human subjects. To this day, much of what you hear about stress’s harmful effects comes from studies of lab rats. But the stress those rats suffer is not everyday human stress. If you are a lab rat, a stressful day might look like this: Unpredictable, uncontrollable electric shocks. Getting thrown into a bucket of water and forced to swim until you start to drown. Being put in solitary confinement, or housed in overcrowded cages with inadequate food to fight over. This isn’t stress; this is The Hunger Games for rodents.

Fortunately for those readers who get stressed out when reading about the treatment of animals in lab experiments, McGonigal does not mention any upside to such research. While she cites hundreds of studies on stress, the ones she highlights involve human beings and the focus is not on the physical or emotional harm stressful experiences can cause, but on the way various mindsets can lead to getting something good out of bad situations. Many readers, however, will undoubtedly join a number of professionals who have criticized her by taking her message to be that there is always a silver lining, that there is some good to be drawn from even the worst of experiences. That is not her message. She does say (and provides studies to back up what she says) such things as 'some stressful experiences, when seen as challenges, can have beneficial consequences.' She does say that often we have no control over stressors but we do have control over how we respond to them. She does say that many people can learn to deal with stress in ways that can benefit them without removing the anguish or sadness that comes with suffering. McGonigal doesn't try to draw a smiley face over suffering. She makes a valiant effort to get the reader to see that there is often an upside to stress, that dealing with stress in beneficial ways can be learned, and that there is a lot of research going on that may make you change your mind about almost everything you think you know about stress.

Whatever your definition of 'stress' might be, there is no reason to believe that the harmful effects experienced by those who have seen combat, have been sexually or physically abused, have survived a terrorist attack, have been displaced by war, have been pregnant and homeless, or have been tortured will be identical to the harmful effects of pressure in the workplace or at school, dealing with the death of a loved one, losing one's job, or any of the thousands of other stressors that come with the price of admission to this carnival of life on earth.

Selye, who began the investigation into what he called 'stress', never studied humans in stressful situations and though he was a medical doctor, he may not have seen a single patient in his life. He may have come to his main idea about stress from observing that sick people shared many non-specific symptoms no matter what their disease. Fatigue, for example, is not a specific effect of a particular disease; it is an effect of many diseases. You could never diagnosis what disease a person has by the fact that the person is very fatigued. In fact, the person might not have a disease at all. He or she might have put in a full day of coal mining or of taking care of a senile parent or a set if twins. According to Selye's friend and colleague Paul J. Rosch, M.D., F.A.C.P.:

As a medical student, Selye observed that patients suffering from different diseases often exhibited identical signs and symptoms. They just “looked sick.” This observation may have been the first step in his recognition of “stress.” He later discovered and described the General Adaptation Syndrome, a response of the body to demands placed upon it. The Syndrome details how stress induces hormonal autonomic responses and, over time, these hormonal changes can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, kidney disease, and allergic reactions. His seminal work “A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents” was published in 1936 in Nature. Selye’s multi-faceted work and concepts have been utilized in medicine and in almost all biological disciplines from endocrinology to animal breeding and social-psychology.*

Selye also did experiments on rodents. He injected rats with a hormone taken from a cow's ovaries. The rats responded with symptoms that included swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes, and gastric and duodenal ulcers. He discovered that the same symptoms occurred no matter what extract of what animal organ he injected into the rats. Even saline solution produced these symptoms.

Anything he injected the rats with made them sick, in exactly the same way. Eventually, Selye had a flash of insight: The rats weren’t getting sick because of what they were injected with, but because of what they were experiencing. There was something inherently toxic about getting stuck with needles. Selye found that he could create the same symptoms by subjecting rats to any uncomfortable experience: exposing them to extreme heat or cold, forcing them to exercise without rest, blasting them with noise, giving them toxic drugs, even partially severing their spinal cords. Within forty-eight hours, the rats lost muscle tone, developed digestive ulcers, and entered immune system failure. Then they died. (McGonigal, pp. 39-40)

Rosch notes that finding an acceptable definition of stress was a problem that haunted Selye his entire life. I can't say that McGonigal has solved that problem. Some people consider juggling schedules of family members as stressful. That hardly compares with the stress of living with the memory of your best buddy having his head blown off just a few feet away from you. Obviously, there are degrees of stress ranging from mild to unbearable. You may search in vain for the upside of unbearable stress, but you might end up rethinking your boundaries of where unbearable begins after reading McGonigal's book.

However stress is defined, it is common to be advised by experts to avoid stressful situations if possible, and if not possible then to do things like meditate to bring some peace and calm into your stressful life. Selye was just the first of many to advise us that stress is bad for your health and reducing or avoiding stress is healthful. McGonigal focuses on recent research that shows that even stress that causes much pain can have some benefits and that avoiding stress is not always in your best interest. Stress that is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and meaningless is not likely to lead to anything positive, but most of the stress that most people experience is not meaningless, even if it is often unpredictable and uncontrollable. "Even in circumstances of great suffering," writes McGonigal, "human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience." Stress is not always overwhelming, leading to depression, alcoholism, or suicide. Sometimes stress can trigger growth and activities that enrich and give meaning to a life. What is most interesting about McGonigal's work is the focus on mindsets as interventions that can be brief and yet have lasting positive effects in dealing with stress. It would be a disservice for a reviewer to detail the exercises recommended by McGonigal, but if you are concerned about how you or someone you love is handling the stress in his or her life, I highly recommend you read this book and see if you can't find some upside to the stress in your own life or help others see the upside of the stress in their lives.

In the meantime, you might watch a video of Kelly McGonigal's TED talk on "How to Make Stress Your Friend" or look over her blog post on the Organizations Featured in The Upside of Stress."

posted on June 28, 2015

more book reviews by R. T. Carroll

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