11/23/2013 11:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Could Stress Really Be Good for You?

Shutterstock / Amir Kaljikovic

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I was just about to put on one of my standard seminars on why stress is bad for you when a man from the audience came up to me and asked if I'd seen a certain TEDTalk with Dr. Kelly McGonigal. He explained that in her talk, Dr. McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University, makes the claim that stress is actually good for you.

As a speaker I can tell you, it's always unsettling when someone in the audience questions what you have to say, but when they do it before you've even started it's UNNERVING! The very next day, one of my best clients emailed me to ask if I'd seen the very same TEDTalk, so I decided I better check it out.

In her presentation, McGonigal quotes a study that seems to say that a person's viewpoint on stress may have more to do with whether they lived or died than their levels of stress did. (The study followed people for eight years.) Even people who reported relatively low levels of stress on the survey -- but who believed that stress was harmful for their health -- died at higher rates than those who reported having high levels of stress -- but who believed that stress was not harmful for their health.

From this study the researchers draw a remarkable conclusion: It's NOT stress that makes us sick, it's believing that stress is bad for you that makes us sick. Extrapolate out the results of this study over the course of one year as McGonigal did and this would make believing stress is bad for you the 15th leading cause of death in the U.S.

Even though I have always maintained the position that stress is BAD for you, as I watched the talk I found myself agreeing with a lot of what she had to say. Although she only mentions the word once McGonigal seems to be referring to a concept known as resilience, which has been around for a long time. Hans Selye, who popularized the term stress in the 1930s, would often say: it's not what happens to you that matters but how you take it. This viewpoint matches up with McGonigal's viewpoint without going so far as to preach that believing stress is bad for you is what makes it bad.

As a resilient person you might be more inclined to see your stress in a different light. -- James E. Porter

Selye, if he were alive today, would probably agree that if you take your stress in stride, are a naturally more resilient person, and happen to already know some good ways of coping with stress, chances are you are going to live longer than someone who doesn't.

So I would agree with McGonigal's hypothesis if you didn't HAVE to believe that stress is good for you in order to get the health benefit. You'd just have to be a resilient person. As a resilient person you might be more inclined to see your stress in a different light. You might see it as a challenge, an opportunity to learn and grow, thus converting your bad stress or distress into good stress, or what Hans Selye called eustress.

I think the beliefs that are coming into play here, are not about how you see your STRESS but how you see your SELF in relationship to your stress. If you see yourself as efficacious, and as a person who is in control of your own life and able to cope well with life's up and downs, certainly you are more likely to live longer whether you believe stress is bad for you or not.

Another thing Hans Selye liked to say was: Stress can be the spice of life or the kiss of death. In McGonigal's case she is focusing on the first part. Most of the rest of the world is focused on the second part: on major real-life problems, not always so easily finessed by perception. Without ignoring the fact that there can indeed be an upside to stress, we need to continue addressing these very real health problems caused by exposure to stress that the rest of the world is facing every day.

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