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Imagine being able to teach yourself to find the good in those dread-inducing feelings we know as stress?
Health psychologist and Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal, who wrote “The Upside of Stress,” believes that stress can help people be stronger and happier when they learn how to embrace it. People can reset their minds to view the negatives of stress as positives.
“Usually when we experience symptoms of stress, we view it as a problem and we try to suppress those symptoms,” McGonigal told Matt Lauer on TODAY Tuesday. “The latest research shows that if we actually embrace the symptoms of stress, we can make them work toward our advantage.”
“If you take a more positive view of stress, if you choose to see the upside, you can actually transform the effect that it has on you,” she says. “Stress can be an opportunity to learn and to grow.”
McGonigal discussed several stress situations and the body’s response:
Submerge your hand in bucket of ice water to jumpstart a response to stress.
McGonigal says people should reset their thinking, and in their moments of stress, try to notice what’s going on in their bodies. If we feel like our hearts are pounding or our palms are sweating, our natural reaction may be to think we need to try to calm down, but she says that’s not the case.
“You don’t need to calm down because those are signs that your body is trying to give you energy,” McGonigal says. “The research shows that that energy can actually help you do better under stress.”
The Love Molecule
When people are stressed, the brain releases oxytocin, or the “love molecule.” It makes you want to connect with someone, though it may leave you feeling like you want to cry.
“It’s a social hormone that makes you want to connect with others,” she says. “It makes you also more caring.”
Listen to that instinct and connect with someone for a hug or just to talk, she recommends, and focus on hope instead of sadness.
Once a stressor is gone, we sometimes rehash the ugly scene in our heads instead of feeling happy that it’s over. McGonigal sees the good in this, too.
“The ability to learn from stress is built into the biology of your stress response,” she says. “You’re releasing a hormone called DHEA, which is a neuro-steroid. It helps your brain learn from stressful experiences.
“So rather than worry about the fact that you’re ruminating, really thinking about the stressful experience is part of what makes stress helpful,” she added.
We're often told we should eliminate stress from their lives as much as we can. But McGonigal says even the idea that we must avoid all stress can be harmful.
“It suggests when our life is stressful, there’s something wrong with us, or something wrong with our life,” she says. “Research shows that people who have more a meaningful life also have a more stressful life. I think we can change the way we think about stress in general and embrace it, whether we can control it or not.”
Lisa A. Flam, a regular contributor to TODAY.com, is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.