Tuesday, 2 June 2015

"The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal

"Probably nothing is more universal than the experience of stress. Nobody gets through life without experiencing physical pain, illness, disappointment, or loss. The specifics may vary, but the underlying experience is a human as it gets."

This is the week the State exams begin, and every article you read about them contains some version of the advice "chill out", or worse "it's not the end of the world". The ESRI even brought out a report this week on the harm that stress is doing our students, especially the girls. Great timing.

Stress is toxic. It damages girls' performance in exams, and when they get a bit older, damages the performance of their ovaries. Every article you ever read (if you read them) about fertility will include the importance of avoiding stress. Advice about skin conditions tends to say the same thing. Not to mention mental health, where a whole industry has been built around the notion that stress is bad for you.

So how happy was I when I clicked on the Twitter link to this 2013 TED talk by Kelly McGonigal? I was soon a fan, looking at other talks and interviews she's given and ordering her book "Maximum Willpower" (for some reason not published in Europe under its original title: "The Willpower Instinct"). "Maximum Willpower" is now one of my favourite self-help books, and I've been awaiting the publication of McGonigal's follow-up "The Upside of Stress" with anticipation.

This is a much quicker read than "Maximum Willpower", a book whose density of research findings belies its bargain-book title. "The Upside of Stress" has also got a touch of the Louis Theroux about it, as there are several vignettes of McGonigal in this lab, or meeting that researcher, or going for a run with a group of teens and adults. It's what you'd expect from Michael Mosley or Alice Roberts; you know, here I am in an MRI machine/ here I am on a zip-wire so my saliva can be tested afterwards. There's lots of that here and it kind of reminds me of a tv tie-in book.

The overall premise of the book is revolutionary, yet entirely common sense. In fact, it proves the saying that common sense isn't that common at all and that things we think are common sense are closer to nonsense.  We all know that stress is harmful, we just know it at this stage. We know we should avoid stress, yet we fail. For anyone who's ever had a brush with mental illness, the spectre of stress is especially frightening, as we are told that part of minding ourselves means minimising stress in our lives.

What if all these things were wrong? Much of what McGonigal writes is convincing. The best example is also the simplest. You know the stress response you get before standing up to speak in public, or before sitting an important exam? The butterflies and the shakes and the racing heart? This is your body helping you rise to the challenge. It is to be welcomed and harnessed, not suppressed. I have tried to do this when faced with insta-stress such as last Thursday when making a speech in front of the entire staff. It is hard to do, really hard to think "this is my heart giving me courage" rather than "must.calm.down.or.else" and I can't say it worked 100% but I think it helped.

Although novel, this is unlikely to cause controversy. Most of us can see that kind of stress response as not that harmful to health. We're more likely to label chronic stress as harmful, or else traumatic stress from a major event. What about the stress of "suffering"? Here McGonigal's claims seem a little wilder. Even the most stressful of life events have an upside. There is a danger here of Nietzsche-inspired complacency towards the suffering of others and one of the papers she cites is actually called "Whatever Does Not Kill Us". There is a caveat that this research showed a U curve where experiencing extreme adversity harms much more than it benefits. It may be more accurate to say "what challenges us beyond what we thought we could do makes us stronger" but that's not quite pithy enough. Rather than The Upside of Trauma, the section on serious suffering is better looked on as suggestions on how to deal with the aftermath of decidedly undesirable events. For example providing opportunities for volunteering can lessen the impact of PTSD.  She does admit that "in some cases, stress is harmful" and writes that childhood abuse, for example, can impair the "tend-and-befriend" instinct.  You have to look hard for these admissions in the book, but they're there. The breezy tone can sometime be at odds with the subject matter; a section dealing with child survivors of the Rwandan genocide is an example. This cheeriness can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she's probably been advised to lighten it up and increase the anecdote-to-science ratio to ensure the book's commercial success. On the other, it risks making the book's thesis easier to dismiss by those who make decisions in healthcare and other areas.

And it is an important argument. I have written earlier about the prevailing dread of stress that exists in the Irish education system, but McGonigal writes of the importance of "stress inoculation". Young people, and even children, need to experience some stress in order to activate their own resilience and, I would add, to learn from adult models how to deal with stress. Therefore we shouldn't be too worried about the fact that children experience stress. The notion that children should not be under any stress at all leads to policy being dictated by inane studies that ask children what the greatest source of stress is in their lives. Predictably they mention exams (the Junior Cert is a negative form of assessment, which causes stress), making friends and the transition to secondary school. This last is now perceived as a huge problem mostly on the basis that fifth and sixth class pupils report it as their main cause of stress. Seeing stress as less of a problem and more of a learning opportunity in itself would not only ease the transition but would help reverse the trend to making secondary school more like primary.

Fear of stress also permeates advice given around mental health. "Recognising and managing stress early will help prevent it leading to more serious problems such as anxiety, depression or high blood pressure" says the HSE's own mental health website. The notion that stress can be "managed" is slipped in there very innocuously but is perhaps the most dangerous stress belief of all. It's what keeps thousands of people chasing their own mental-health tail, caught in a never-ending personal campaign to protect their fragile mental health (yes, the HSE actually sponsors ads that tells people their mental health is "fragile), curtail the amount of stress they're under and dampen down their stress response through endless relaxation exercises.

A typical memory I have of my time in mental-illness care is being told to be "a human being, not just a human doing". I was exhorted to spend time "just being", even though I was unemployed at the time and really, really needed to spend more time "doing". If I started a job or a course, at the first hint of trouble I'd be encouraged to quit or drop out on the basis that "nothing is more important than your health".

This is where a book like "The Upside of Stress" would have come in handy. The difficulties I was experiencing could have been reframed as training in resilience. I have also come to realise that "put your health first" is often a euphemism for "put the organisation first". Quitting is promoted as an act of self-care, when perseverance might be the more selfish, yet wiser move.

While I think the book has much to offer the individual, I shudder at the ends to which this research might be put. McGonigal writes early in the book about a "mindset intervention" as a company was about to make 3,000 employees redundant. Such interventions are fine if conducted by a disinterested, outside party such as a group of researchers. They're less cosy and more creepy when sponsored by the companies themselves or used as subtle advertising by mental-health groups. No company or institution should think that it's okay to rack up the stress on employees, or others, or that a "stress mindset intervention" cancels out inhumane or unfair practices.

What I like most about "The Upside of Stress" was its link between stress and meaning. Meaning, or purpose, is the true upside of stress. And meaning can come from choice; either a project of our own choosing that we know will incur an inevitable amount of stress, or the choice to respond to stress in a the best way you can.Quitting your job or dropping out of a course or giving up on a goal for the sake of your health can make that health seem fairly meaningless.  McGonigal writes "Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful". When you have no meaning, then even small amounts of stress seem unbearable and learning is hard.

So the title of the notes books "Less Stress, More Success" is totally misleading, not just when it comes to exams but in life in general. That's not to say that "More Stress, More Success" is necessarily the case either, or that stress is all good. "Seeing the upside of stress isn't about deciding whether stress is all good or all bad. It's about choosing to see the good in stress can help you meet the challenges in your life."

My resolution for June is to embrace stress and see stressful events (past and present) as learning opportunities. Funnily, this last resolution (learning from stress) is one that has driven me absolutely mad when others have suggested it to me. It can be very, very insensitive and ill-timed, so I'm going to recommend you actually read this book for yourself and maybe give it to other people when they're not actually in full-stress mode.

We'll see how well the stress-embrace is going in two weeks time when I'll be waist-deep in Leaving Cert exam scripts.

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