Kelly McGonigal (@kellymcgonigal) is a research psychologist, a lecturer at Stanford University, and an award-winning science writer. She is the author of The Joy of Movement, The Willpower Instinct, and The Upside of Stress.
What We Discuss with Kelly McGonigal:
- How much does the way you think about stress affect your health?
- Contrary to what medical professionals have been telling you for years, can there really be such a thing as good stress?
- Why trying to shame someone out of a harmful coping mechanism (overeating, smoking, etc.) can generate the very stress that prompts reliance on that mechanism.
- How anxiety, pangs of loneliness, and other indications of stress can be seen as calls to action instead of triggers for inappropriate responses.
- How do genetics play into your relationship with stress?
- And much more…
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Like pain, the symptoms of stress can be unpleasant in the moment and, if not managed in some way, run the risk of inflicting long-term damage to our mental and physical health. Stress can give us headaches, keep us tossing and turning through sleepless nights, steep us in the darkness of depression, make us say things to our loved ones we’ll regret forever, and depend on harmful substances and behaviors to escape from the overwhelming dread of the everyday. As a result, its bad reputation obscures something today’s guest — research psychologist and The Upside of Stress author Kelly McGonigal — knows about stress: it can also be good for us. And that, in itself, is a good thing — because stress, no matter how much we try to avoid it, is an inevitable part of life.
Like pain, stress can prompt us into meaningful action; it can be just the kick in the pants we need to pull out of a downward spiral if we know how to channel it constructively. On this episode, Kelly gives us practical advice we can use to reset our mindset about stress and embrace it as a way to make us stronger, smarter, and happier. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, KELLY MCGONIGAL!
If you enjoyed this session with Kelly McGonigal, let her know by clicking on the link below and sending her a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal
- The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage by Kelly McGonigal
- The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
- Kelly McGonigal | Website
- Kelly McGonigal | Instagram
- Kelly McGonigal | Twitter
- Kelly McGonigal | Facebook
- Stress Symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior | Mayo Clinic
- Does the Perception That Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality | Health Psychology
- Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress Your Friend | TED Talk
- Why Cigarette Warning Labels Make People Smoke More, Not Less! | Break the Habit Blog
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Psychology: 10 Examples and Definition | Positive Psychology
- 10 Best Things About Growing Old | A Place for Mom
- New Year’s Resolutions That Connect with the ‘Ideal Self’ Are Most Effective, Stanford Psychologist Says | Stanford News Release
- Stress Mindset Measure (Adult Version) | Mind & Body Lab
- Skiers’ Thrill-Seeking May Be Genetic | Live Science
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Symptoms and Causes | Mayo Clinic
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
- 2019 Global Emotions Report | Gallup
- The Stress Paradox | Wellness Lifestyle
- Stress Generation Research in Depression: A Commentary | International Journal of Cognitive Therapy
- The Social Costs of Emotional Suppression: A Prospective Study of the Transition to College | Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- Optimism in Close Relationships: How Seeing Things in a Positive Light Makes Them So | Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- Everest: Exclusive Obstacle Preview | Tough Mudder
- The Trier Social Stress Test: Principles and Practice | Neurobiology of Stress
- Jane McGonigal | Gaming Your Way to Health and Happiness | TJHS 96
- The Full Story of Thailand’s Extraordinary Cave Rescue | BBC News
- California Couple Rescued After Disappearing in Wilderness for a Week | The Washington Post
- Kelly McGonigal’s Playlists | Spotify
Transcript for Kelly McGonigal | The Upside of Stress (Episode 374)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:00:03] People who are in extreme states of grief — sometimes trauma — we actually see their stress response system basically shuts down because the brain and body do not feel like there’s anything you can do. And that sort of defeat response is actually the opposite of stress. Stress isn’t only toxic. The mindset that’s most effective is stress is what arises when something that you care about is at stake and your brain and body think there’s something you can do about it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:34] Welcome to the show. I’m Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world’s sharpest minds and most fascinating people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. Our mission here on the show is to help you become a better informed, more critical thinker. So you can get a much deeper understanding of how the world works and make sense of what’s really happening. If you’re new to the show, we’ve got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skill sets like negotiation, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you’re smart and you like to learn and improve, you’re going to be right at home here with us.
[00:01:17] Today on the show, Kelly McGonigal, she’s a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University who is known for her work in the field of — I guess you’d call it science help, which focuses on translating insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support health and well-being. And I’ve known her for a while. I’ve known of her work for a while. She’s a great person, a really good researcher. You all know me I like to stay science-based when it comes to pretty much everything. So Kelly and I are going to break down some of the science of stress and why — even though stress might feel like something we should avoid or ignore. The discomfort and pressures we feel when we’re under stress might actually be good for us. We’ll learn to look at stress as a set of superpowers bestowed upon us by nature. Finally, we’ll explore how we can trust and appreciate our body’s stress response. In other words, stress might actually be good for you. And this episode is about how to get good at stress or at least at managing stress.
[00:02:11] If you want to know how I managed to book all of these great folks while they are in my network, I call upon them for favors, for shows, when I need anything, or when I know someone else in my network who can use something that they have, or when I have an opportunity for them. That’s what networking it was all about. It’s not about smashing business cards in people’s faces. I’m teaching you how to do this in a systematic way that doesn’t take a bunch of time and doesn’t feel schmaltzy. It’s in our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free. That’s over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you’ll be in smart company where you belong now. Here’s Kelly McGonigal.
[00:02:51] You know, I was interested in the book when I heard it was about stress because stress is a common subject, especially right now, people are “stressed out,” you know, that’s happening a lot. But you found a study that shows — let me see if I get this right. You found a study that shows that being fearful of stress is actually what causes stress-related death in a lot of ways.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:03:12] Yeah. So that is definitely not the way that I would describe this study. So it’s funny because this is a study I used to study in my TED Talk that’s gotten a bazillion views. And so I worry a little bit that people are misinterpreting the study.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:23] Like I just did. Yes.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:03:24] So let me explain — this study was sort of like my aha moment and that it made me rethink how I was talking about stress, but I don’t want to make people terrified that if they think about stress, the wrong way that they are killing themselves with their thoughts. So this was a study that tracked about 30,000 adults in the US for almost a decade. And the researchers were really interested in finding out: is it true that stress will kill you? So they asked people at the beginning of the study, “How stressful was the past year?” So you can all imagine us answering that question now for 2020, “How stressful was the past year?” but they also asked them, “Do you believe that that stress is harmful for your health?” So they had two interesting measurements: how stressful your life was or how stressful you perceived your life to be and also how harmful you perceived stress to be. And they found that over the next decade, having a very stressful life increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But only among the people who at the beginning of the study also perceived stress as being very harmful for their health. So there was an interesting kind of interaction effect. And among people who had a really stressful life but did not strongly believe that their stress was harmful for their health, they actually were the most likely to be alive at the end of the study.
[00:04:38] So the epidemiologists, they hypothesized that millions of Americans were dying prematurely not because they had stress in their lives, but because of this interaction that they had very stressful lives and they strongly believed that stress was harmful for their health. And so they put forward this idea, like maybe how you think about stress is an important signal that could even interact with stress to shape how stress influences your physical health or your longevity. Now, the reason that I mentioned this study is not — it’s one study. There have been some other studies showing similar outcomes for things like heart disease over two decades, and whether or not you get sick during a very stressful period of time. There’s other evidence suggesting that how you think about stress really matters. But what I don’t want to do is scare people into thinking that if you, like every other person on the planet who has been told their entire life that stress is harmful, if you hold that belief, you have this broken mindset that is killing you and it’s another problem to fix. I talked about that study because I want it to be transparent that I’m a health psychologist. And I — like everyone else in my field — had been taught to really turn stress into the core enemy. If you want to convince someone to do something, all you have to do is tell them that it will reduce their stress. And if you want to explain why something is harmful, you can always use stress as the explanation because we all know stress is terrible.
[00:06:00] Stress had really been turned into this very convenient enemy. It’s the thing that increases your risk of everything you don’t want. And also it’s a really easy way to convince people to do something or buy something by promising it will get rid of your stress. So I had bought into that — like everyone else in my field, believing that it was true and useful. In the study, which I came across in 2011, it blew my mind because it made me think about what if by just buying into this message and sharing it broadly, I’m actually amplifying the harmful effects of stress? That it may matter how we talk about stress and how we think about stress because you can’t always control whether or not life is stressful. And if we know that viewing stress as extremely harmful, viewing it as the enemy, and maybe even thinking that your job in life is to avoid stress, that that itself may have harmful effects above and beyond stress.
[00:06:55] So I shared that study, not because I wanted people to be terrified or to believe that there’s no inherent harm and stress. Stress is really complex. And there’s no doubt that there are types of stress and amounts of stress. Stress is not something that we want to like, just open our mouth wide and say, “Give me as much as you can because I can take it.” This is really about understanding that I wanted to change who I wasn’t, how I was as an educator, as a public figure talking about stress, because I wanted to be able to do the most good and the least harm. So that’s what that study was about and why I think it’s a really important, interesting study, but you know, there are so many more studies now suggesting the real takeaway is what I call the stress mindset effect.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:37] And we’ll dive deeper into stress — the stress mindset effect — and how we can control this because this is — I mean, that’s the crux of the entire book or at least the first half of the book. Again, I really enjoyed this book and I thought it was very useful because it did change the way that I think about stress, which is kind of a big deal considering that stress is the guiding pillar in my life, much of the time with a nine-month-old kid in the middle of a pandemic and of running a business. Like I get that. I wish I’d read this book 20 years ago. Before we dive into how we can take the reins on this. I did think it was really interesting that a lot of the attempts, as you mentioned before, to use stress to let’s say control behavior, actually don’t work as well. They do work really well, but they also don’t. The images of lung cancer on cigarette packs actually backfire. Tell us about that because when I see those disgusting lungs on cigarette packs, I’m like, “Who would ever go pick that up, put that in their pocket, pop that sucker open, and shove a cigarette in their mouth?” And yet it actually increases the behavior that we’re trying to prevent.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:08:38] Yeah. And you can, so it’s not going to make people want to start smoking.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:41] No.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:08:41] But if you’re somebody who already struggles with an addiction to cigarettes and you see something that makes you feel stressed out or scared, and smoking is your most favorite coping strategy — as it turns out, what happens is you’re feeling stressed out. You’re feeling angry, maybe you’ve resent the fact that someone is trying to control your behavior or shame you for something that is a coping strategy in your life — that it creates this kind of reactance where you end up increasing the behavior that somebody was trying to scare you out of or shame you out of. And it’s not only with smoking, you see the same thing with other health behaviors, like eating and weight and exercise and movement. The more that you shame people, the more you try to stigmatize the state they’re currently in or the behavior that they engage in, you almost always create the sense that, like not a great motivation that has the energy to change, but a great feeling of distress then becomes something that people want to avoid or escape or fight back against. Because when you feel powerless or when you feel shame, one of the easiest ways to feel better is actually to get angry. And so people will then — they’ll say, “F you, I’m going to smoke this.”
[00:09:50] It’s a natural human reaction but again, as a health psychologist, one of the things I’m really interested in is if people want to pursue positive change — I’m not here to tell people what to do, but if they want to pursue positive change, how can we support that so that is easier? And people can be whatever the best version of themselves, whatever that is for them as they define it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:12] I think it’s interesting you say “I’m not here to do that.” Like, how dare you tell me to have a positive change in my life? Like, I mean, that’s what I’m doing.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:10:22] I’m a really big believer in autonomy and also people’s own intuition and motivation. So I might have an idea that for example, exercise is the most important thing in my life to take care of my physical and mental well-being. And I’m super passionate about it but I’m not going to stop people on the street and be like, “You didn’t take enough steps today. You’re destroying your health. You need to move.” I’m more interested in finding people who are like, “This is a vision that I have of my life. How do I get there?”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:50] Yeah, sure. I mean, I figured that’s a self-selecting group of people that listen to this. It’s not like I’m not walking by people and going, “Are you listening to music, you piece of crap? You should be listening to this podcast.” I mean, I would love to do that actually. Now, you know what? You’re giving me all kinds of ideas.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:11:03] Wait! But actually, music is one of the best things that you can do for your well-being. I should go up to him and be like, “Are you listening to a podcast or the news? You should be listening to music — ”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:12] Shame on you.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:11:13] “— that’s going to lift your soul or empower you.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:16] You’re putting a dent in my listener base here. Let’s stick to the stress topic. The idea that we have a mindset and beliefs around stress, and that can influence the effects of stress, as you mentioned from that earlier study. That is fascinating. So some beliefs clearly don’t really matter. Vanilla versus chocolate. Did you like Seinfeld or not really? Although what kind of person are you? And some beliefs are pivotal, which is like, “Well, if I have more money, I will be happier.” Or, “If I get nicer things, I will be a happier, more successful person.” And that’s a pivotal belief that would change your life, theoretically, in a negative way. Right? If you have that particular belief — well, how does this work with stress?
Kelly McGonigal: [00:11:57] I’m particularly interested in beliefs. So the belief that you mentioned that like the best way to increase your happiness is through material success, there’s some evidence that holding that belief actually decreases well-being in the long run. But I’m really interested in a different kind of belief that matters, which is the one that sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. So there are some beliefs that when you hold them, they so profoundly change what happens in your brain and in your body as you engage with life, and particularly as you engage with challenges that they change your emotions; they change your biochemistry; they change your interactions with other people; they change what you’re willing to do. That creates this kind of upward spiral or downward spiral that can lead to all sorts of important outcomes from your health, your mental well-being, your relationships, your success in pursuing them.
[00:12:47] And so some of the beliefs that seem to hold that kind of weight are things like, do you believe that aging is inherently negative? That’s one of the best-studied beliefs. If you believe that aging is basically negative, that is a mindset that really sets you up for some negative outcomes. Do you believe that people can change? [That] is a really important mindset and belief. Do you believe that other people are more good or more sort of rotten at their core? That is a huge mindset that influences health and happiness and success. And then finally, do you believe that stress is always harmful? And that’s the one that I focus on. They actually work in similar ways.
[00:13:28] So the idea of a stress mindset effect is that we experience stress all of the time because stress is what arises in your brain and in your body. When something that you care about is at stake — so human beings have stress responses, not once a month, not once a week, but many times throughout the day. We have a whole repertoire of stress responses, but there are basically different ways that your body and brain react to help you engage with life in a moment that matters. That’s what stress is. So you had mentioned, you being a parent and running a business, and being in the middle of a pandemic. Yeah, you’re going to be stressed all the time because they are roles and relationships and goals that matter. So we know that we are going to have stress all the time as human beings.
[00:14:10] And that sets up the power for a mindset effect. Because every time you experience something we could label as stress, how you think about stress is going to interact with that. And it turns out that people who believe that stress is always harmful are more likely to have physical stress responses that actually are unhealthy and unhelpful. They are more likely to avoid things that are stressful, which can be very problematic. They’re more likely to engage in coping strategies that are self-destructive, like getting drunk or gambling too much, buying too much, overeating, to what we consider as avoidant coping strategies. Like, “Oh, I hate the way I feel. So now I need to make myself feel better.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:49] Right. Yeah. We play Xbox. We gamble. We look at porn and other things that make for a great weekend.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:14:55] Behaviors could be fine as sort of standing on their own. But when they’re your default response to stress can be very problematic.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:02] So the beliefs around stress are core and of crucial importance. So you mentioned also the people that have positive beliefs around aging, they had positive health effects. So if you thought, “Oh, I’m getting old, everything’s getting decrepit, I’m going to get sick.” But then you had other people that are like, “Oh, I’m wiser, I’m smarter. Now I’m more distinguished, whatever. I get more respect in my career.” I don’t know whatever positive beliefs or energy.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:15:22] There’s one study who found that they listened like seven years longer with people who had more negative thoughts about aging at midlife. They’re really interesting studies. This is not like little — because I mean I’m a psychologist, so I know there’s a range of sorts of evidence like little tiny experiments with undergraduate students versus big epidemiological studies with thousands of people over decades. I’m really interested in both. But when you have studies that are looking at whether or not you’re alive decades later, I think that’s pretty interesting.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:52] Yeah. I mean, what would you pay for an extra damn near-decade of life?
Kelly McGonigal: [00:15:56] Yeah. And to think that you can do it simply by broadening your understanding of the human experience, which is really what we’re talking about here, whether it’s deciding that aging isn’t all bad or deciding that stress isn’t only toxic and isn’t something that you should design your life around avoiding. Because the mindset that seems to help people have healthier and more skillful responses to stress that said it isn’t, “Please stress me out as much as possible.” The mindset that’s most effective is stress — first of all, defining it the way I defined it, which is that stress is what arises when something that you care about is at stake and your brain and body think there’s something you can do about it. We know that people who are extremely depressed, people who are in extreme states of grief, sometimes trauma, we actually see their stress response system basically shut down because the brain and body do not feel like there’s anything you can do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:52] Right.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:16:52] And that sort of defeat response is actually the opposite of stress rather than sometimes we might label that stress — but if you actually look at it, it’s like your brain and body have decided there’s nothing you can do. So, “We’re not going to give you the right level of stress hormones. We’re not going to push you to engage.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:08] Interesting. So positive beliefs would cause us to maybe — like among other things — reframe the situation and ask for help, ask for advice, lean on our social network, all very positive important things, and belief that stress is helpful in like nature giving us superpowers as a self-fulfilling prophecy like you mentioned. And it seems like positive views of stress limit what we view as stress-induced problems. It’s not that you can’t do Xbox, gambling, and porn. I mean, that sounds like a great weekend and everything, but you shouldn’t be doing that instead of calling your mom, talking to your wife about a problem, or your significant other about a problem. Playing Xbox with your friends because that’s how you unwind, not because you are a bad parent and you forgot to pick your kid up from baseball. Now you’re beating yourself up. Instead of doing that, you’re going to play video games for three days straight. Do you hear about that? When you hear about addiction to something you think, “How can you get addicted to Xbox or video games?” And the answer is generally when you’re avoiding something else, that’s a bigger problem — sometimes also caused by that same activity, I guess.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:18:04] Yeah. I mean, almost everything that we get addicted to is behavioral because it’s providing relief from an inner experience that we feel like we can’t tolerate. So part of what it means to be good at stress is to tolerate those initial signals of stress that we often don’t like. Like we’re feeling anxious, we’re feeling angry, we’re feeling overwhelmed. And often that early signal is actually a sign about what coping strategy is going to be most effective. That, you know, if you’re feeling a little bit anxious, that’s often a sign that actually you’re getting ready to rise to the challenge. And this is something that you can show up. You can give it your all. Feeling lonely or feeling overwhelmed is often that first signal that this actually is the time to reach out to your support network, to be transparent about the fact that you’re struggling.
[00:18:49] And so when you learned to tolerate some of that early discomfort, instead of immediately thinking, “Oh, stress, ah, I don’t want this. I can’t feel this.” What’s the easiest way to get rid of the feeling as opposed to, “Okay. What is this feeling a signal of?” And then being just more strategic about what you want to do with it. Many of those coping strategies you mentioned could, as you said, actually be quite skillful. You know there are lots of reasons I think that connecting with other people. Particularly if there’s a problem you can’t solve, you can’t solve on your own spending time in a pleasant activity with your friends, your family, your kids, or whoever could be an amazing coping strategy, but that’s different than when it’s sort of your default distraction for life.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:30] Is the stress mindset or our beliefs around stress — is this something we develop or are you finding that in your research? Is that something that we’re born with? Like, is it nature or nurture? Is it because my parents freaked out that I freaked out? Or is it because I just got really good at freaking out because I’m an overachiever that I freak out about stress?
Kelly McGonigal: [00:19:45] All of it. So I think to understand this one thing I want to mention for listeners is that there are a bunch of different stress strengths you can think about. They’re sort of like different stress mindsets. So one is this idea that you can harness the energy of stress and sort of run toward the stress and rise to the challenge. Some people are really good at that. Another way you can have a stress strength is you can look at stress as an opportunity to learn and grow. Some people are really good at that. They will be able to find the meaning in a crummy situation. They will be able to reflect on failure and re-engage rather than give up. And some people, their stress strength is reaching out to others, being part of a team, asking for help, taking satisfaction in being able to help others, to sort of a collective do-it-together approach to stress. Some people are really good at slowing down, paying attention, being vigilant, really sort of approaching stressful situations from a place of sort of cautious deliberation.
[00:20:42] So there are a lot of ways you can be good at stress. And it seems like part of that is temperament. There may actually be genetic influences on how you respond to stress. We also know that early life experiences really shaped this. You know, one of the most interesting studies I found is that children who had cancer, who survived cancer, and in adulthood, they actually are more likely to have a biological stress response that primes them to reach out for help and to have that kind of collective do-it-together stress response. And somehow their brain learned from that early experience that you can’t survive by yourself. And so having this extreme, stressful experience as a child where you need to depend on others is somehow taught their nervous system that this is a good way to deal with stress. And they become better at these bigger than self social stress responses. Whereas the opposite is true, if you grew up in an environment where you learn that you can’t trust other people, you can’t trust your caregivers or your neighborhood is unsafe, you may be more likely to develop that kind of fight-or-flight stress response, where it’s really about self-defense.
[00:21:44] So there are lots of things that can shape our stress responses. And one of the things that I think is really interesting and useful is to reflect on what your stress habits are, and look at ways for broadening your repertoire. So that you don’t get stuck in — like, so my least helpful stress response that I learned growing up is what you could call freeze response. Like if you’re a scared wounded animal, you’re going to freeze and then you’re going to look for a place to hide. That’s my least helpful coping strategy. And I’ve had to find ways to not let that be the default and really try to train up that challenge response that says, okay, rather than retreat and withdraw, I’m going to transform it into courage because fear is energy. Add a little bit of self-trust and suddenly you’re relating to stress in a totally different way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:33] You mentioned there’s a test around beliefs on stress and you have this kind of, is it like a checklist? I would love to kind of go through this and maybe we can do a little bit of — we can put this in the worksheet, but we can have it go a little bit live as well. How are your beliefs around stress? Because I think a lot of people go, “Oh, I think I handle stress really well.” Or, “I think I handle stress really poorly.” Maybe there are some diagnostic questions we can actually ask ourselves about this and you can find a page if you want to.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:22:59] I’m not actually sure if I have the whole thing in the book, but I know what the items are basically.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:03] Okay.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:23:03] So this is the — and probably for like copyright, it will be good if I’m paraphrasing it rather than getting it exactly right. So this is an instrument that was designed by some researchers at Yale. Alia Crum is the lead researcher that I interview in the book and she’s done a lot of this. So the stress mindset measure — well, first I’ll tell you what it is so people can sort of self-assess. Because since I wrote the book a while ago, there’s even now sort of more information about how sort of what the ideal mindset is. And I think it’s good news because it’s an easier place for most people to get. So the stress mindset measure, it starts with — it asks you to rate how strongly you agree with two sets of items. One you could think of as being items that describe stress is debilitating. And the other is a set of items that are more consistent with the idea that stress is enhancing. So stress is debilitating would be something like stress is harmful and should always be avoided. Sort of to think like at your gut-level does that seem like true, maybe true, not really true. And the stress as enhancing side, it would be stress is helpful and can be utilized. And then you go down the list and there are items like stress inhibits my learning versus stress helps me learn. Stress destroys my health and vitality versus stress gives me energy.
[00:24:24] It goes on like that with the idea that you can either believe that stress always has harmful effects or that stress can actually bring out the good in you and how I would describe it, which is really different from — it’s so funny, the title — I never come up with the titles of my books and I often fight about them and lose.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:40] Okay, yeah.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:24:41] But the subtitle is Why Stress is Good for You and what I always say is it’s not that stress is good for you, it’s that stress can bring out what is good in you or stress can also bring out what is good in communities. And that’s really where I’m trying to get people to point their attention, not that suffering is good for you. So if you can think along that scale, do you more strongly believe that stress is always harmful and should be avoided, or do you more strongly believe that stress is part of life? And when you’re stressed out that stress can be helpful and you can use it to learn, to grow, to strengthen relationships, to harness it as energy.
[00:25:18] So the initial research on this mindset measure was basically lumping people into positive or negative and people who had more positive mindset towards stress seem to be protected against what we usually think of as the inevitable negative effects of chronic stress. Things like illnesses, headaches, back, pain, divorce, getting fired, depression — all these things we think of — if your life is stressful, you are going to end up with all these things you don’t want. But now there’s just some more interesting nuance research that what really seems to matter it’s not like, are you on Camp A or Camp B, stress is good, stress is bad, but can you hold a nuance to view? Can you have a mind big enough to hold some opposites? That in moments of stress, it can feel like you don’t want to be stressed and you don’t want this to be happening, and also because this is happening, this is life. You can choose to put your attention on the fact that we know stress can bring out what is good in human nature.
[00:26:15] And so this is an opportunity to remember your values, to act with courage, to reach out to others, to learn and grow. That’s the mindset that really seems to be effective is not do you think stress is good or bad but in moments of stress, what are you going to choose to put your attention on. The fact that you can find a study that says stress increases your blood pressure or the fact that you can find a study or remember in your own experience that stress can bring out the best in you. It’s a matter of what I think of strategic attentional deployment and the story that you’re going to tell yourself, particularly in moments where the stress is not so easy as turning it off.
[00:26:54] And one of the findings, when I first started talking about this research, I got a lot of pushback from psychologists who literally said these messages were dangerous because it was giving people permission to have stressful lives. Literally, I got emails. Somebody gave a whole talk at a conference after I gave a talk on this research, talking about how dangerous my talk had been. It’s really humiliating and —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:16] That’s it interesting like, “Hey, your work is a bunch of crap.”
Kelly McGonigal: [00:27:20] Not only that. It’s dangerous because again it gives people permission to lead stressful lives. And I just don’t know who these people are hanging out with. Did you choose the coronavirus pandemic? People are not choosing stress in their lives. You don’t get to wake up and say, “That’s it. No stress today. Stress has just been a hobby that I’m willing to put down.” If you have a body, if you have relationships, if you have any sort of goals you’re pursuing in life, and if you live in this complex world, you’re going to have stress all the time. And so frankly, I think we need to give people permission to have stressful lives and figure out what we can do to avoid some of the most harmful consequences in anyways. So that’s the mindset. This is a mindset of embracing reality.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:06] I mentioned mindset blindness, which is that we don’t necessarily realize our mindset is the result of choices we make, especially now about stress. So we think, “No, this isn’t — ” And I’m doing this like today, even this morning, I go, “Well, no, this is an accurate assessment of the current situation at hand. I’m not just making a bunch of really bad choices and catastrophizing and going over and ruminating and looking on the dark side of things. No, this is reality.” But everyone else, they just need to lighten up and chill and look at things differently and blah, blah, blah, blah. Like I do this all the time. So I have mindset blindness. I assume everyone does. That’s kind of the idea behind mindset blindness.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:28:46] Tell me what you mean. So what’s the challenge you’re describing here?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:50] Well, when we don’t know that our mindset is the result of choices we make about stress. So we might be feeling stress and going, this is a thing that happened, and this means something, and this is what’s probably going to happen after that—so catastrophizing and/or this is really bad. I’m going to have a drink and cope poorly. And, you know, stress is bad for me. This is bad for me. This is bad for my business. This event that happened is bad, but we don’t realize that it’s a result of choices. When I look at other people, I look at it as clearly the result of their choices. When I look at it in myself, I think, nope, I am accurately assessing the reality at hand.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:29:21] Yeah. Well, it’s hard because when you have thoughts in your head, they sound very true. I mean, that is one of the great human dilemmas is that the voices in your head seem really, really true, whether it’s the voice of self-criticism, the voice of fear, the voice of outrage. The things in our heads, it’s like, they’re so close to us. Somehow they’re just absolutely true. So I think of mindset as an opportunity. And again, I feel like there’s this tension sometimes — like, you know, I’m talking to a human being right now, I’m talking to you, and then they’re listening, and I really think of this as an invitation to experiment with ways of thinking about stress in moments of stress that support you. And they either will or they won’t. And when you realize that you have some freedom here, that you could choose any way you want thinking about a situation, and there are lots of reasons that you might have certain thoughts and emotions, none of them are wrong, but what happens when you try as an experiment?
[00:30:15] So I think anxiety is a really good one because it’s where people often have the biggest change as soon as they start to experiment with this. So people who feel anxiety about something often think that what it means is “I can’t handle this.” And so they look for a way to either escape it by backing out or leaving, or by sort of mentally checking out, like taking a medication that really removes them from the reality of the situation to try to cope with it. And what if instead you chose to view anxiety as a normal response? That means you care. People who are amazing performers, the absolute top of their game, athletes, musicians, artists, negotiators, they all feel anxiety before something that matters. And one of the biggest differences between world-class athletes and everyone else is they know how to channel that anxiety. They view it as something they can harness and they aren’t afraid of it, and they don’t waste all their energy trying to get rid of it.
So if you start to think of anxiety in that way: “Okay, it’s a sign that I care, it’s an energy I can use, and I’m going to take another step forward rather than looking for a way to back out,” people will almost instantaneously find that they’re better able to cope with it. They feel more confident. They do better. And it’s this upward spiral. So again, I think the mindset is like that. It’s not just one right way to think and one wrong way to think. But like why not use this ability we have to choose perspectives that can really create objectives — like improvements and outcomes — that we care about?
Peter Oldring: [00:31:48] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Kelly McGonigal. We will be right back.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:54] This episode is sponsored in part by Manscaped. You know, this usually devolves into ball trimmer talk, but —
Peter Oldring: [00:32:01] Not today. We’re not doing that today.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:04] Some of you all bloomers have written notes about how you just don’t want to hear about balls, even just sort of balls that don’t necessarily belong to anyone, just balls in general.
Peter Oldring: [00:32:12] Just random disembodied balls.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:16] That’s right. Yeah, so let’s talk about toenail fungus and —
Peter Oldring: [00:32:19] There we go.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:20] They did release their Shears 2.0 Nail Kit over at Manscaped, which is a great add on to the Lawn Mower 3.0 or the Perfect Package. It’s a luxury. This word is in bold in the copy. So it’s very important. It’s a luxury four-piece nail kit, featuring tempered stainless steel tools, which sounds a little surgical, kind of sexy actually.
Peter Oldring: [00:32:40] It really does.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:52] Slashed tip tweezers. So none of that like pointy stuff —
Peter Oldring: [00:32:47] Looks great. This got a slashed tip.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:49] Good for scraping stuff out from underneath nails. Should you have any? Rounded point scissors, so you don’t accidentally poke yourself with them. Fingernail clippers and a medium grit nail file. Now people are probably thinking like, “I don’t do my nails. I’m a guy. What are you doing? I thought this was Manscaped.” What about your gross ass toenails? You’re probably going to wear flip flops this summer. People don’t want to see those nasty unclipped talons you got growing out. Nobody wants to see that. So Peter, go ahead and tell them where they can get a deal on their nail clippage and their ball clippage.
Peter Oldring: [00:33:18] Absolutely. My pleasure. Get 20 percent off and free shipping with the code JORDAN20 at manscaped.com. That is 20 percent off with free shipping at manscaped.com and use code JORDAN20. Summer is here. It’s time to get Manscaped.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:35] This episode is also sponsored by Better Help. We’re in extraordinary times. And if you are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, you are not alone. Better Help offers licensed — which is important in this day and age — apparently, now anybody can call themselves anything they want. These are professional counselors who are trained to listen and help. And trying to find a therapist does not help anxiety. The last thing you need during any kind of issues you might be having is to go through a list of literally insane Yelp reviews to find somebody who’s going to listen to you. Fill out a questionnaire within 48 hours. They’re going to match you to a counselor. Video or phone sessions with your therapist, chat, text, whatever you need to do. And if you’re not happy with your counselor, get a new one anytime. No additional charge. Get some professional help when you want wherever you are. Peter.
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[00:34:48] And now back to Kelly McGonigal on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:54] You know, my wife was really stressed during the pregnancy, just about random business stuff. There wasn’t like severe stress. And we were stressing out about passing stress hormones on to our son and everything, but the good news is — or at least according to your book — the good news is that’s not really what the research is showing; stress can be good for babies and kids in moderate degrees. And the stress we think of when we think of like, “I’m late for work,” or like, “Oh, this is really stressful. I have so much work to do and I’m so tired.” That’s not really the stress you’re talking about when you talk about chronic stress being delivered to infants. That’s more like haven’t eaten, getting malnourished, not able to sleep at all because you’re in a dangerous environment. You’re fleeing from a wartime situation across borders and sleeping in a tent or something like that’s the kind of stress.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:35:39] Yeah, I think this is a really important distinction to make that when you look at research that says stress is linked to really harmful outcomes and many of us want to avoid. So something like pregnancy, 30 studies showing that stress increases negative outcomes, whether it’s low birth weight or challenges as that child ages. Things like metabolism and their own stress resilience. And there are also these studies showing that stress can increase positive outcomes, like increased stress resilience. And so when you look at which stress is leading to which outcomes, it’s almost always things like extreme deprivation, poverty, homelessness, being in an abusive relationship that are clearly linked to the worst outcomes. And it’s normal, everyday levels of stress — I don’t want to say normal because actually deprivation and abuse are also normal. And for many people that is reality, but for whatever reason, nobody likes to have nuanced discussions around this. They just want to call everything stress and then act as if all types of stress have the same harmful outcomes, which does not seem to be — that’s not consistent with the evidence.
[00:36:42] Actually, I have been trying to take a pretty strong stance towards — so for example, we know that discrimination is linked to a lot of negative outcomes. And sometimes people like to say it’s because discrimination is stressful and stress is bad. I think that actually we should use pretty clear language and talk about poverty having harmful effects. Discrimination having harmful effects. Abuse having harmful effects. Because as soon as you say the reason it’s harmful is because of stress, then you come up with solutions like, so teach them all how to meditate as opposed to give them resources or protect them.
[00:37:13] So I actually feel like this is important for two reasons. One is parents who have non-extraordinary levels of stress in their lives should know that they may be making their children more resilient, like work stress, relationship stress. Even with this pandemic level of stress, if you also have resources, you may not be passing on stress hormones or trauma to your kids in a way that’s going to make them less resilient. You may be making them more resilient. And then also, I think it’s important to have these nuances because when we talk about the type of stress, stressful circumstances that are really harmful, that’s a case where actually we should try to change the circumstances, not change people’s mindsets about it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:50] There are different responses to stress that we all have. You kind of mentioned this earlier in the show. Fight or flight, that’s the one we all kind of know about. And in fact, that’s actually kind of the only two I knew about. I know that the challenge response — actually, the challenge response was fascinating because these are those people who rise to the occasion and then are proud of themselves and go, “Look at what I did. This thing happened. And instead of like letting it beat me down, I beat it.” And you have all this extra confidence as a result, you have these mental resources and then tend and befriend, which is like, “Oh, I’m going through this hard time. Let me reach out to all these relationships.” And I had this experience, you know, when I started my business over a couple of years ago, due to a lawsuit — it’s an awful situation with my former partners. And I started off with like, I don’t know if it would be freeze where I was like, “I’m going to crawl in bed and cry,” and that was like a few days. And then my wife was like, “Dude, what are you doing?” And I was like, “This isn’t even helping me. This is so stupid.” And then I started to reach out to all my friends, call all the people I knew that were smart and supportive, and I got a lot of emotional support, business support.
[00:38:49] And then I started to feel like I can kick this problem’s ass. I can rebuild and it’s going to be better. And everyone on my team was like, “Oh, good. You’re on that boat now because we’ve been on that boat for like a week and you’re sitting here whining on Slack. Like, we’re over it.” “This is fine. You’re just being a wimpski,” as my dad would say. And so I kind of went through various stress responses, almost sounds like a curve.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:39:13] Yes.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:13] I wouldn’t say I got to excite and delight where I’m like, “Now I want to screw up my life even more and recover.” Like those people who get a rush from it. I didn’t buy a motorcycle. I’m not doing motocross. I’m not skydiving, you know, but I went through fight or flight, tend and befriend, challenge response. And now I’m like, “Okay, that’s enough of that. I’m good.”
Kelly McGonigal: [00:39:31] Well, hey, don’t forget the learning and growing part too, which often comes after the experience, the whole biology —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:38] Yeah, that’s like the aftermath, right? Like, “Oh, look at all these things I learned about how I can’t get screwed by things that were a nightmare.” Like, I will tell you that it was nightmare fuel before anything happened. I was like, “If I lost my show, what would I do? I’d be so screwed. I’d be homeless and poor. And just jump off a building and die.” And I told my wife that and she’s like, “Oh, that’s a scary thing to think about.” And then afterwards, I’m like, “If everything burns down, I can rebuild it. I did it before. ” And it was hard, but I can totally do it again. Like I’ve done it. Nothing can take me down now. That’s how I feel.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:40:07] Yeah. That’s great. And you know, you described a lot of different types of stress responses. Sometimes you don’t need to go through all of them, but like this first one you described as freeze, that is actually from thinking about how animals and humans respond to stress. That’s actually the most common default first response to stress. Your body and brain are like, “What’s going on? I need to pay attention.” And we often shut down temporarily as a way to try to figure out what’s happening. That can sometimes start to feel, however, like we’re paralyzed or overwhelmed. And so there’s nothing wrong with that initial reaction.
[00:40:42] But like, as you described, we often need to look for the thing that’s going to allow us to feel like we can approach and engage. And sometimes it’s reaching out to others because sometimes it’s not a do it yourself challenge. And so the thing that’s going to allow you to get out of that freeze or paralysis is you need resources. You need your team, you need your support network. You need advice. And that will basically dampen down the fear and the inhibition in a way that empowers you. Sometimes you actually just need to talk, do yourself and think about the resources you have, how you have been prepared by life for this moment, and shift into a challenge response. And sometimes the whole thing has just happened and everything fell apart and you’re left with the pieces and that’s when you choose to have the growth and learning response, which is often that’s when it starts with your brain, trying to figure out how did that, how did that go wrong, what was that. And then as you go through that process from rumination to more intentional reflection, you can really harness your capacity to learn lessons. And again, look for ways to re-engage. But I think it’s funny that you described it as sort of this like cycle that you go through.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:48] I didn’t know about it until I read it in the book. And then I was like, “Oh, but I did all of these.” Because I think a lot of people go, “Oh, I only have fight or flight.” And it’s like, “Whoa, wait, wait, wait.” You probably initially fight or flight, but then later something else happens where you go, “Oh, I learned from that,” or, “I rose to the occasion,” but we don’t necessarily think about that afterwards. I never thought of me reaching out to my network, activating these pro-social connections, processing, and integrating the experience. I never thought about that as a stress response. I thought that was something that happened after my stress response. So incorporating those things into my stress response, now when I have a fight or flight response, I can go, “This is the uncomfortable beginning of the good thing that happens when I have a stress response,” which is a completely different mindset in a way of looking at stress.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:42:36] It’s a great way to think about it. And again, so they’re all instincts too. I mean, that’s what is so great. So often people think that the only thing that is instinctive or hardwired is the most harmful or least skillful response to stress. Like, let’s say fight or flight in a situation where that doesn’t help. But as you mentioned, we also have these instincts to reach out to others. We have instincts to be able to survive a crisis. We have instincts to learn and grow, instincts to harness energy. If it’s not your first instinct, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have that capacity. Often it means literally like a mindset reset that allows you to unleash the instinct. That’s going to be more skillful in this situation.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:15] I would like to challenge the audience here, just to think of a stressful experience that they’ve had and see which responses they have had. Because I think a lot of people probably went, “Oh, and then I melted down and had nothing happen and it was awful.” And it’s like, well, wait, if you zoom out a little bit on the timeline. Did you get the superpowers afterwards? You might have gotten them and then ignored that and thought, well, that’s just me being brilliant. That has nothing to do with my stress response. My stress response was destructive and horrible. Because that’s what I was thinking. I was like, “Geez, I don’t handle stress well,” But actually I handled stress great, I just didn’t like the first seven days or something or week and a half. I don’t know how long it was, but that’s the traumatizing part. It’s kind of like, there’s got to be an analogy here, maybe to surgery. Like nobody likes the surgery part. Nobody likes the recovery part, but I’d like my knee working. That’s kind of nice. I like not having a cancerous tumor. They don’t love that part of the healing process, but you like the aftermath where you don’t die young. That’s great. So to use kind of that awkward, clunky metaphor, I think a lot of us have these positive responses. We just don’t notice them. So we’ve kind of write them off and we don’t think, well, stress did that for me We think I did this in spite of having a stressful experience, but they’re inseparable.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:44:27] You know, I totally agree. And I think that because we’re so used to defining stress as the part we hate. Like feeling self-doubt or feeling overwhelmed or feeling sick to our stomach or not being able to sleep at night, we think about particular stress symptoms as the totality of stress. That, again, it feeds into that mindset where then people are more likely to say, “Okay, this is going to be stressful. I don’t want any part of it.”
[00:44:50] And, you know, some of the research that I found most really useful, and just dealing with stress in life is the research that links meaning with stress. And that every way you ask about stress from how much stress have you had in your past to how much pressure you’re under every day to how many minutes a day do you spend worrying. They’re positively correlated with feeling like you have meaning in life that your life is meaningful. And I think that that part of what you’re describing is, “I don’t always value and love the initial part of stress,” where I’m like, “Oh, please, this is not how I want the day to go.” Or, “This is a certain pain that I had hoped to avoid in life and it’s happening. We don’t like that. But if you can take the perspective that looks at how often — you know, the reason we experienced stress is because we care. But if we want goals and relationships and roles that are meaningful to accept that stress is part of that, that is very consistent with the mindset you’re describing. Just sort of stretching it out to look at the entire shape of our lives. Not even just like the stressful experience itself.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:52] Some stress responses are genetic. I mean, we kind of touched on this before.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:45:56] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:57] Like the thrill-seekers. I can’t identify with it at all. Like I see kids that — even now, I think back to my childhood and I’m like, “Wow. I didn’t know Adam would do ski jumping,” and then I’m like, “Well, of course I did. He was the kid who would pretend to fall down the stairs.” And I was like, “Doesn’t that hurt?” And he would do it all day long and he would jump off the top of the structure and tuck and roll. And I’d be like, “I am not doing that.” And now he’s an adult that does it. So I think about that. And I’m like, that has to be genetic. And also maybe some people are more sensitive to stress. And I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. There are some people I know that they get a little bit of stress and they just are totally — it’s just an immediate catastrophe. Everything is awful. They go to depression immediately. Some of that’s mindset though, right?
Kelly McGonigal: [00:46:43] So let me reframe that a little bit. So some of the things you’re describing as genetic art related to temperament. And it’s so funny that the idea that somebody would go out and seek thrills to feel alive, it may change how they relate to things that other people describe as stressful but they’re not actually having a stress response. So if you put me — like I do not ever want to jump out of a plane ever, a nightmare scenario. You put me on a plane, I’m going to have all sorts of stress responses. If you put somebody who likes to jump out of airplanes, because they don’t feel alive, unless they get a massive adrenaline rush, that’s not really stressed. So I think some of what you’re describing is, it’s almost like — in my Willpower book, I talk about how we have different willpower challenges. The fact that I exercise every day has nothing to do with real willpower because it’s something I enjoy and it keeps me sane and I love it. And so there’s not a huge internal debate. However, I need my willpower to get on an airplane, just the travel, not to jump out of it because that activates in me fear and I need to overcome that fear.
[00:47:44] So there’s a part of what you’re describing as like temperamental differences in stress is actually its temperamental differences that determine what we find stressful. I would hate to say that some people are really good at stress because they love to jump out of airplanes. Though they’re really good at jumping out of airplanes, but how are they when they have a conflict in a relationship or how are they when they have to say home in a pandemic and they don’t have autonomy. Maybe that’s what the real stress is. So that I think is a little bit of a separate issue. But also the idea that people can be more sensitive to stress. So it is not the case that people who are more sensitive to stress are only the catastrophizers. So like the way you described it makes it sound really not looking good thing.
[00:48:22] But what we know is that stress is basically the biological mechanism humans have for learning from experience. And that is something that people seem to differ on is their sensitivity to learning from experience. And it has to do in part with how robust their stress responses to things throughout the day. So maybe the case that some people are much more likely to mount a stress response. Every single time there’s an opportunity to learn something. You get feedback at work. You have a difficult conversation with your partner. You try a new physical activity and you have to learn a new skill. You’re mounting these stress responses and what sensitivity stress really seems to be is an increased capacity to learn from experience. And that can express itself in ways that look like suffering. Like sometimes if life is really difficult, you’re going to be at increased risk for something like posttraumatic stress disorder, because your brain is really good at learning from stress. And it’s going to learn from trauma ways to try to defend yourself from future stress.
[00:49:25] But people who are sensitive to stress are also more likely to have positive outcomes as well. So even though they may be more stressed out in the moment, they’re more likely to have positive learning in the long term or more likely to have increased empathy as a result of going through something difficult. That’s how I think about differences in sensitivity. It’s not like some people are just more easily overwhelmed. In fact, they are more sensitive in both directions. And if you’re someone who feels really sensitive, I think it’s something to embrace rather than something to try to, like, “I need to find a way to become less sensitive.”
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:57] Yeah. That’s good. That’s good to know. Because I think a lot of people might just beat themselves up, “I’m too sensitive to this.” And then it just sorts of becomes a cycle of like, “Well, I’m too sensitive to stress. So every little thing gets me down and now I’m going to be down about that.” I don’t know.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:50:08] For example, I mean, I mentioned the example of PTSD, which is the consequence of learning from trauma. And it’s an extremely difficult thing to live through, but it’s not a sign that your brain is broken or that you aren’t strong. It means you have a brain that was like, “I’m going to learn from this. And I learned really well, so well that I’m going to produce all these intrusive memories and exaggerate your stress response and other situations.” If you have the capacity to have that outcome, you also have the capacity to move through it to get to resilience and posttraumatic growth. I mean, it’s as evidence of your capacity to change.
[00:50:48] And the same is true with other really strong reactions to stressful situations. You know, people who have strong grief responses are more likely to come out of that with incredibly strong compassion responses to other people’s stress and suffering. And so that’s a message that I’d like people to know. Because sometimes you find yourself in the middle of it and you think you’ve been broken by stress. Whereas the symptoms you’re having right now are revealing your sensitivity and your capacity to be changed by stress. But you also have within you, all of the positive capacities to be changed by stress in ways that ultimately you’ll value and to get through whatever you’re in the middle of.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:23] parent can change your responses too. I thought this was fascinating, right? Because this is an adaptation, plain and simple. You can adapt both ways as you get older. It’s okay. It’s natural. I think it’s good to know about this. A lot of people they’re going to worry about their changes in the way they adapt to stress. And they’re going to think I’m getting worse at this or this is changing and therefore that’s bad. Or I used to be better with this when I was younger. That’s not necessarily a good mindset to have. Probably we should be thinking that we can change in any direction that’s useful for us. Is that a useful mindset to have? Like we want to look at this as nature’s superpowers. We want to appreciate the stress response. We want to trust the stress response. And as we get older, having that flexible mindset, I guess you’d call it — what was that, Carol Dweck? Growth mindset, maybe. This is part of it. Tell us about this poll, where you had higher stress scores, people with higher stress scores also had happier lives, more satisfaction, more joy, more love, more laughter. People engage more with work and in relationships, they reported more stress, but also like, “Hey, my life’s fulfilling,” which is kind of the point of life, right?
Kelly McGonigal: [00:52:26] Yeah, that’s pretty complex data. I’ll give you sort of an overview.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:29] Okay.
Kelly McGonigal: [00: 52:30 This is going to ask people to hold opposites.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:31] Okay.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:52:32] So this is World Gallup data. And so they asked in every country on earth, every age you can find some teenagers to like a hundred years old, every demographic you can think of. Asking them questions like: did you experience a great deal yesterday. And also things like did you learn a lot yesterday? Did you laugh a lot yesterday? Did you experience a lot of love yesterday? And what they found is that they often went together. So if you live in a country where a lot of people said yesterday, “I experienced a lot of stress.” There also were more people who said, “I learned something interesting yesterday. I laughed a lot yesterday and experienced a great deal of love yesterday.” These are studies that are looking at basically the stress index if you live someplace where stress is a common part of your life. And so at the aggregate level, it looks like stress is a signal that people are involved in relationships that matter to them and roles that matter to them. They have job opportunities. They’re learning, they’re growing, they’re contributing to their communities.
[00:53:35] And yet at the individual level on a day, when you experience the most stress that you’ve ever experienced, you’re not necessarily reporting on that same day, the greatest happiness. So this is really asking us to take that sort of aggregate level. That the most stressful day of your week is probably not your favorite day of the week. But if I were to take out everything in your life that is causing you to have very stressful days, probably what I would have to do is take away your job, take away your family, take away your relationships, take away anything that brings you joy. That gives you an opportunity to learn. That is a context in which you experience love. And what they found is that in the places where people are most miserable on earth, they actually report less stress because stress — in order to really experience stress in most places on this planet, you need opportunity. And most of the time stress is not an index for something like extreme deprivation or lack of safety. For most human beings on this planet, stress is an index of opportunity. That’s what that data is about. I do want to get back to parenting though, but let me pause for a moment.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:43] Yeah, yeah, for sure.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:54:45] You mentioned about how parenting can change the way that you respond to stress. I think this is another fascinating paradox that when people become parents and there’s some evidence, by the way, I think it’s important that you don’t have to physically give birth. You don’t have to go through pregnancy that you see this replicated. In parents who were not the vehicle for producing the infant. So sort of all genders and also when you adopt or when you become a caregiver. So one of the main changes is that you see is an increased sensitivity to stress, particularly anxiety. So you become more of a worrier. And also you develop more capacity to act in ways that are brave. So you become like a warrior and it increases both at the same time. So you become more sensitive and more brave, and you’re more willing to do things that are uncomfortable or difficult or put you at risk to protect your family or your child.
[00:55:43] And I think that’s such an interesting paradox because in many ways that’s a great place to be. But many people experience it as really aversive initially because they’re not, maybe they weren’t born with a temperament of anxiety and it’s the first time in their lives that they know what it’s like to live with a mind that is always worrying. Some of us were born, so we’re practicing all of our lives.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:05] Yeah.
Kelly McGonigal: [00:56:05] And that’s another way to, I think, really start to embrace the paradox of stress is that in part, it’s the sensitivity that actually gives you the courage. You wouldn’t want a caregiver who wasn’t sensitive because then that caregiver is going to be less responsive. So many ways, the sort of challenge of becoming a caregiver is finding ways to strengthen yourself to be a container for this new sensitivity and also enjoy that it can deepen your capacity for courage. And that, that can generalize to other things that matter to you in life because you learn that you’re the kind of person who can deal with difficult inner experiences and make choices that are consistent with who and what you care about most.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:47] Yeah, this is all interesting because to go back to the superpower’s idea, like stress responses are helpful much of the time when we’re talking about challenge responses and the tend and befriend response. And if we avoid stress, like you said, going into bad behaviors or just ignoring it. A lot of people can try to ignore it. It makes us lose out on peak performance. That’s enhanced by stress. So like if we had a stressful parenting situation and we went, “Oh, I’m just going to ignore this.” We’re losing all the benefits that really nature had intended for us to reap by having that stress response in the first place. Before we jump into something else that I want to talk about stress generation, because the more we avoid stress, the more it piles up and makes things worse. So this totally backfires. You miss that opportunity. You end up with those bad coping mechanisms. How does stress pile up? It seems like it would be hard to do. I mean, is it just because we cause things to break in our life, or does it actually somehow like does cortisol actually pile up?
Kelly McGonigal: [00:57:44] Well, okay, so the stress generation hypothesis, mostly isn’t looking at the biological. That’s the observation that if you have the goal to avoid stress, you will make choices that screw up your life because it forces you to avoid conversations, to avoid feedback and learning experience, to basically avoid challenges that allow you to be better at the things that matter to you. So these are studies that look at, for example, if you are in a marriage and your goal is to avoid stress, you’re more likely to end up divorced because you don’t have those difficult conversations. Maybe you aren’t willing to go to therapy, which is stressful but we’ll help you sort of move through. That you are more likely to turn to alcohol when you feel stressed in your relationship, rather than trying to do something positive. Same thing at work if your primary goal is to avoid stress, you will do things at work that prevent you from learning that prevent you from collaborating that will prevent you from taking on challenges that you aren’t sure you can succeed at. And you’re more likely to end up fired. I mean, that’s just one study that they’re being fired. But you can imagine all sorts of other outcomes too, like less likely to get promoted or new opportunities. And the idea there is that its goal leads to coping strategies that are avoidant rather than allow you to engage with the opportunities that strengthen your relationships or help you reach your goals. So that’s the stress generation hypothesis.
[00:59:11] In terms of what’s happening biologically, there is a whole other field of research that if you try it, you suppress something in your body. You will actually amplify it. The very first study that I ever did as a graduate student at Stanford, looked at this with anger, in a fight with — we had couples come into the laboratory and fight, and we told them they just suppressed their emotions while they were fighting. It was so interesting. So I was in charge of the physio and we found that that is your blood pressure and it increases your partner’s blood pressure too. So you’re like, “I’m not angry. I’m not going to show that I’m angry, shutting it down.” And all the time, you’re shut trying to shut it down and not be stressed by this fight, your own physical stress response is amplified and so is your partner. It doesn’t help anybody.
[00:59:54] So there’s a whole other line of research that says the more you try to suppress something, the more likely it is that you’re going to get the harmful part of it. And the less access you have to what’s useful about it. Because even something like anger can be very skillful. It allows you to defend yourself. It motivates you to express yourself and anger is not always harmful. It’s not just something that’s going to increase your blood pressure. So get rid of it. And I feel like that’s how I think about stress. That if you try to deny it or suppress it or escape it, you’ll probably amplify the harmful effects, like increase inflammation. But you’re not harnessing any of the positive effects like this is pushing me to do something.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:34] What about people who have “real anxiety”? Like there’s a lot of people who are like, “Yeah, yeah, this is fine. But I have debilitating social anxiety, real social anxiety.”
Kelly McGonigal: [01:00:44] So if anyone — probably a lot of people listening have seen my TED Talk. And there’s something that I did not mention in the TED Talk that gets mentioned in the book, which I think is really important. So I mentioned this field of research that says that if you are experiencing anxiety and you choose to accept it, rather than try to escape or suppress it, it actually allows you to engage in more skillful ways. I talk about that in the TED Talk. I talk about it in the book, but what I didn’t say in the TED Talk is that those studies specifically recruited people with anxiety disorders and it was most useful for them. It is not the case that this stuff only works if you aren’t really stressed or you aren’t really anxious, you’re just a little bit anxious, not like panic attack level.
[01:01:29] And actually, I can’t be more clear about this, whatever category you think is too big for this to be true for depression, grief, trauma, anxiety disorders. In the book, I also talk about people who are homeless or struggling with addiction and other circumstances you would objectively say, this is really imprisoned, really difficult position to be in. All the things that we’re talking about, the benefits are amplified for people who are really suffering. It is the opposite of most people’s intuition. Almost everyone says this is going to be BS in a really difficult situation. And what’s so interesting now with this pandemic is I am finally hearing from people who are like, “Oh, I see what you mean.” Like who maybe whose lives were actually not that difficult until the pandemic and suddenly overwhelmed with the loss of employment, worrying about family members, health crises, suddenly like, “Oh, that thing you said about choosing to embrace the meaning in a situation you can’t control. Yeah. I could see how that could help.”
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:33] Yeah.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:02:33] So that’s a message I have for people is that don’t push away some of these ideas because the suffering is real. It’s not denying the suffering to try out some of these mindsets or try to rely on some of these human strengths. Real suffering is exactly when they’re needed most.
Peter Oldring: [01:02:52] This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Kelly McGonigal. Not to fear, we are coming right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:04] I know we touched on this in the beginning of the show as well but it sounds like from your work that if we believe and not just like looking at yourself in the mirror and telling yourself affirmations or some BS, not life coaching, but like, if we believe that we have the resources to handle the oncoming challenge, we will have a challenge response. If we think like, I’m up to this. If we don’t, then we might have a threat response, which is kind of like this — it’s the difference between rising to the occasion and cowering under your sheets, I guess, right?
Kelly McGonigal: [01:07:31] Yeah, or having a fight response. That’s not skillful. Like yelling at people instead of getting people to join the challenge with you.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:39] Sure. Okay. So how do we increase our resources so that we freak out less and rise to the occasion more?
Kelly McGonigal: [01:07:44] Yeah, so anything that helps you feel like you can handle the present moment counts as a resource. So there’s actually a wide range of ways people can connect to their resources. One of the most useful is actually to think back at a time in your life when you did rise to the challenge. Something that is stressful, something that provoked anxiety, something that was painful and you got through it. And it’s one of the reasons why I often will encourage people to actually take the time, tell stories about their past stress or adversity. Because when you know that you have been through difficult things in the past, and you see how you got through it, that experience itself is a resource that you can rely on. Other things that you can think about are people who care about you and support you, which is interesting because you would think like, “Well, does that mean I need to ask for help in that moment?” Actually, no. We know that just thinking about the fact that there are people who care about you and support you, or maybe mentors who believe in you, just bringing them to mind can increase the chances that you have a challenge response, where you can rise to the challenge. You don’t necessarily need to ask them to hold your hand in order to get through it. You know that they’re there.
[01:08:47] For other people, it can be faith. There is research suggesting that prayer or thinking about being connected to something bigger than yourself is a resource that helps people rise to the challenge. And my personal favorite way is to listen to music. That gives me access to the feeling of being able to rise to the challenge. So to listen to music in a key that is empowering with lyrics that are empowering, that literally shifts my brain into the state that I would be in if I were about to do a kickboxing workout. That is another way you can trick yourself into having a challenge response because exercise actually is, by default, a challenge response. That’s what’s happening with your stress hormones and your blood vessels and your brain. It’s basically the ideal stress response. And so if you can remember a time when you were being physically active and enjoying it, or feeling fierce and like the competitor version of yourself that can give you access to a challenge response. And there are other things too but those are some of the things that people recommend.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:44] I think it’s interesting that when we feel constrained and overwhelmed, you’re instructing us to give more of ourselves because the choice to be generous will light us up a bit. And of course, there’s some of us that are stressed because we’re giving too much of ourselves. So there’s that — I guess that’s a different question. Like how do we know if that’s us? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Kelly McGonigal: [01:10:02] So the tend and befriend stress response, I’ve actually started to call it a bigger than self-stress response because the tending and befriending can sound very caregiver-like.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:13] Yeah.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:10:14] And a lot of people only do the part that is the helping others. And they are still feeling like, “Ah, I don’t want to be vulnerable and ask for help,” or “I’m going to get my warm glow from taking care of others, but I don’t want to be a burden on others.” And so one thing that I keep trying to remind people of is this bigger than self or social stress response is really about reciprocity and strengthening relationships. So the reason that humans have it is the idea is that we will all look out for one another. And there will all be times when we are in need of the support of our family, our community. And so if you think about it that way, it’s not only that you are strengthened and made more resilient by helping others. You need to be a part of the full cycle. You need to allow other people to be strengthened and made more resilient by being able to help you. And you need to allow yourself to receive the support that is available to you.
[01:11:12] What I’ve been doing that at a lot of talks lately. I’m showing an image of a tough mudder obstacle. Do you know the tough mudder obstacle?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:19] I do, yeah. Those like obstacles — what do you call it? Like obstacle races, I guess.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:11:23] Yeah. Yeah. I heard they might’ve just gone out of business —
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:27] I think a lot of those places have gone out of business, yeah, just now.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:11:30] Anyways, well, it’s a really good metaphor. So one of their most popular obstacles is called Everest and it’s a ramp that you have to run up and it’s coated with vegetable oil. So you cannot run up this ramp on your own. It’s impossible. And so the first person up, you have to get everyone behind them to like push them up this ramp. And when they get up there, they don’t turn around and say, “See you, suckers.” They stay, they reach their hand down and they start pulling other people up. Everyone gets to be a full part of that cycle. It’s why people love the obstacle. You get to be lifted up by others. You get to then also stay around and support other people. And when I talk about the benefits of a bigger than self or social stress response. It’s about figuring out how in your life, like what stresses in your life right now are you the one who needs to ask to be lifted up for people who’ve been there before you and been through it and know how to get you through it? And when are you in a position to look out and see who’s struggling more than you and slow down for a moment and reach out a hand to offer help. And if you can find ways to do both, that’s sort of the stress mindset. That is why you see things like people who have stronger social networks are protected against all sorts of negative stress outcomes, including mortality, which is the one that — a lot of people are really aiming for that one.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:49] Yes, exactly. These stress tests that you do in the book, they sound really interesting where you’re doing that — what is this social stress test? This is kind of funny, right? Like you have to go into a room and they’re like, look, we’re going to treat you poorly and do all these things. And you’re like, “Oh, I can handle it.” And it’s still awful. Can you take us through this? I thought this was kind of funny.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:13:06] Yeah. Well, so I went through this knowing what it was and it was awful, but I survived. I mean, I guess it depends what you’ve been through, so it’s not that awful, but it’s designed to be ethically awful. Just what you can do to people to stress them out.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:20] Right.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:13:20] So the social stress test, you don’t know that it’s going to be awful. You sign up for a study. You arrive and they tell you you’re going to have to give a speech, which really, that’s not a big stressor in my life. You know, I’m a professional public speaker, but apparently for most people devastating news to receive. So you’re going to give a public speech and it’s about you. And you’re going to have to talk about your personal strengths and weaknesses, which brings up all sorts of ego and insecurity. So it’s like you’re hitting people exactly where they’re most vulnerable. And when you go to give your speech, what you don’t know is that the people you’re giving the talk to, you’re told that they are professional communicators who are there to give you feedback, but they’ve been trained to give you the most discouraging nonverbal feedback possible. They don’t smile at you. They glare at you. If you introduce yourself, they are not going to reciprocate in any way that’s warm and positive. And you know actually, I got to email with the person who developed this. And what I learned, which most people don’t know is that the most stressful thing about this is not the speech. It’s the lack of reciprocity that anything you do to try to connect with these evaluators — that is affiliative, that is positive — you are going to get the absolute absence of reinforcement and warmth. And he said that when they looked at like pilot testing and figuring this out, that was the thing that stressed people out beyond belief, which I think is actually pretty interesting. It’s the social part. It’s not the performance stress.
[01:14:49] But anyway, so you do that, and then there’s a whole other part where you have to do math out loud and they tell you you’re making mistakes, whether you do or not. And they tell you you’re not going fast enough. And people hate that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:14:59] Yeah.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:15:00] It’s like the calm cruelty of the social part that really freaks people out. So that’s one way that psychologists stress people out. Certainly, if you are trying to make other people miserable, you can try it out yourself. Like a lot of people are hating Zoom these days because people aren’t doing as much of like — the heads nodding, the mimicry —
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:19] Oh, interesting. I find that —
Kelly McGonigal: [01:15:21] It’s harder to mimic because if you’re making eye contact in Zoom, you’re not actually looking at someone you’re faking it. So I’m fake making eye contact with you right now by looking into the camera.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:30] Right.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:15:32] And if I actually want to access my ability to mimic you and emote appropriately, I have to look at your face, which means it’s going to look like I’m not making eye contact at you. And so it’s kind of breaking our natural response systems in a way that’s kind of like the social stress test.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:15:47] Yeah, that is interesting. In fact, of course, as you can probably tell, I’m also looking at where your face is on my screen, but I moved that around as I need to look at my notes and you’re probably just like, “What is this guy doing?” And then I’m moving notes around and I’m striking things out, but they’re on my screen. So I’m still looking at you and I’m looking at you and now I’m looking at my notes and you can’t tell because I can move your window around and Zoom is like that. Plus I think also on Zoom, half the time people are like, “I bet I can check the news and still just go, aha. Cool. Yeah. Great.” And just sort of make like mail in my reciprocity gestures and grunts like, “Oh, I’m listening. Yeah. I’m definitely not reading the New York Times right now. Okay. Yeah, no, I’m definitely not texting my wife about lunch right now.” And you do that and the more you do that, the more the other person is like, “It’s kind of like they’re listening, but they’re kind of not.” But if you’re in-person and someone whips out their phone and is checking a menu for lunch, you’re just like, “Well, okay, hello. I’m right in front of you.” And it’s obvious and it’s rude and there’s social pressure, but on Zoom, there’s none because you can’t go, “Are you paying attention?” “Yeah. Well, how do you know I’m not?” I could be looking at where your face is on the screen or I could be reading an article. You just don’t know.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:16:59] Yeah. And so you can end up feeling the sense of unease and not sure why, because you’re just not being validated in the same way. That connection is just —
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:07] Yeah.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:17:07] Humans are such interesting animals. We’re animals and there’s so much that happens in-person we don’t understand, but that is critical to our ability just to feel connected and heard.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:18] Now in closing here, posttraumatic growth. This is probably an entire show in and of itself. And we’ve discussed this on the show before, but I forgot which episode this was. We can grow as a result of making it through stressful experiences, grow as a result of making it through hard times and we can even have — this was what surprised me — we can even have vicarious growth by hearing other people’s stories of going through something. And that somehow increases our resilience too. So what you’re saying is I don’t even have to go through hard stuff, I can just watch stuff or listen to stuff about other people doing it. I prefer that way.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:17:52] Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice?
Jordan Harbinger: [01:17:53] Yeah, I prefer that.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:17:54] That’s not an option. So as our ideal stress mindset reminds us, that is not an option. But I do love this idea of vicarious growth because it’s connected to a mindset that is, I think, really important in our time right now, which is the ability to see the good in others. So let me give you an example of this. There was a study that was done looking at the consequences of a mass shooting in a university community, and they were interested in who developed posttraumatic growth versus only being traumatized. And by the way, there often is a positive correlation between the negative symptoms of trauma and the positive symptoms of trauma. It’s not like what happens is you go through something awful and you skip the confusion and grief and anger, and somehow arrive at, “Now, I’m wiser and more compassionate. And I have a new direction in life.” That is also not an option. People often go through the really, really horrible, hard stuff on route to posttraumatic growth.
[01:18:51] So in this particular study, they looked at — they asked people. In the aftermath of this crisis: did you have the opportunity to help others? Did you have the opportunity to receive the help of others? And did you witness other people trying to help others all related to this crisis? So not like in generic ways, but related to this crisis. And what they found is that all three of them increase the chances of experiencing posttraumatic growth. And I think that this is such a key idea to what we’re going through right now because we’re all going through something traumatic. And the capacity to see the good that is happening in your community or in the global community is going to be an important predictor of whether or not as we move through this, we are only negatively traumatized by it or we also are able to change and learn and adapt in ways that we value. And so there’s something about being able to see the good in others, whether it’s seeing them use their strengths — so seeing acts of courage, witnessing acts of kindness, witnessing ingenuity and creativity. When we see it in others, there’s something about that that allows us to imagine it is true for us and true for humans in general.
[01:20:07] And that’s part of what makes my carious growth so useful is that when we witnessed someone else grow or change or learn, not only survive something traumatic, it’s not only useful because it makes us feel it might be possible for us to, but it actually is fundamentally altering that mindset I mentioned earlier — the very beginning of our conversation — do you believe that human beings are essentially good or not good? There’s something about witnessing vicarious growth or witnessing growth and good in others that reinforces the mindset that other people are good. We’re complicated. Like we also have the destructive side, but it’s moving against that mindset. That human beings are basically destructive and untrustworthy. And that’s one of the reasons vicarious growth increases our own capacity for growth is because it’s changing that assumption we have about human nature. I know this is pretty philosophical.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:21:01] Yeah, we just went deep. I was like, “Okay, we’re sort of looking for the shortcuts of growth.”
Kelly McGonigal: [01:21:05] Sorry.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:21:06] Go get some Greek tragedy here. No, I like it though. It does make sense. It does make sense that — it’s like when people see something inspiring in real life or that’s why people love these news stories where it’s like, “Look at this guy who did this amazing thing and help these people.” Or like you’re watching these, this cave rescue in Thailand. Do you remember that?
Kelly McGonigal: [01:21:23] Of course.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:21:24] All of these scientists came over from all over the world. And there was like one guy who was an expert underwater cave school diver. It was not even his full-time job. He was like an IT guy or something. And he just like became this global hero and everyone’s watching it bated breath because we want we’re rooting for the people to come out on top because it’s like this human achievement and about how much we can all care about each other if we just stopped being dicks to each other for no reason. And it helps a lot — you see comments online. Like I was going through a hard time and watching this has really helped me. And when you’re not going through a hard time or if you’ve never had a hard time, you might look at somebody who goes, “Oh, this person’s music has gotten me through this,” or, “This story has helped me get through this hard time.” You roll your eyes a little, but then when you have a little bit of trauma in your life and you see somebody react like that, you’re like, “Yes, I get it. I understand how another event that has nothing to do with me that I’m simply watching play out can be good for me or good for you.” I think the idea is we should be seeking out like you said, opportunities to —
Kelly McGonigal: [01:21:25] See the good
Jordan Harbinger: [01:22:26] See the good, but also be the good for other people who are going through a hard time, not because it’s good for them, but because it’s good for us.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:22:32] And also to let other people be the good. That’s another thing to — that’s a very vulnerable thing for many of us to let other people help us, to let other people care, to be the good, see the good, and receive the good. But I want to tell you a story you just reminded me of about the importance of sort of letting other people’s stories inspire you. So the last book signing I did before we went to shelter in place a couple of days before a woman asked me to sign a book for her friend who she said had been lost in the wilderness. And I thought that was a metaphor like, “Oh, she’s like, doesn’t know where she’s headed in life.” And she’s like, “No, no, no.” This is that woman you heard about on the news who was lost in the wilderness with her husband for nine days. They’d gone for a hike — you know, the story, right? Because you’re in the Bay area.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:23:16] Yeah. And I remember they thought, “Oh-oh, like we found their car. Were they murdered?” It was crazy.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:23:22] And they thought there’s no way that they’re going to be alive. So they were found something like nine days later, nine days without food and water in the wilderness, they survived. It was a miracle. And so this woman was having me sign the book for her friend. And she said to want to know how they survived. And I’m like, “Yes,” thinking it’s going to be something really strange, or I don’t know. And she looked at me, really serious and she said, “The way they survived was by singing.” And I thought — like to me as somebody for whom music has been a real source of support. That was so inspiring. This idea that without food, without water, without hope that they would hang on to hope by singing. I thought that was so beautiful and it stuck with me.
[01:24:04] And then we went into this pandemic crisis where so many people feel kind of like that. We don’t know if we’re going to get through. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. We’re kind of stuck. There aren’t a lot of options. And it allowed me to think about how at some point, we’re going to be telling stories about how we got through this. And I realized I wanted to be able to have a story to tell that made me feel the way that story made me feel that they got through it by singing to one another. And I wanted to know what am I going to do during this time where at the end of it, I’m going to be proud that I did it. And it’s led me to make different choices than I might have otherwise because it’s encouraging me to do things that bring me joy, not just things that make me feel safe. Because at the end of the day, I want to say that part of what allowed me to get through this is I relied on the human capacity for joy and connection, not just bare knuckles survival. And that’s an example of a story that inspired me and then allowed me to cope with something stressful in a way that I think has been very helpful.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:25:08] Do you know what they were singing to each other?
Kelly McGonigal: [01:25:12] No. And I was asking her, she was like, what song? But I don’t know. I can imagine what songs I would be singing.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:25:18] Sure but I’m just curious, like, are you up there? And you’re like, “Kumbaya,” or are you like, “Hey, um, do you know Biggie Smalls. I’ll teach you.” You know what? I wonder.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:25:26] Right, exactly, you have to send your power song. So I’ve done so much research for my most recent book about how music empowers us. And there’s all this research about the songs that literally give you energy when you have no energy. Give you strength when you have no strength, give you hope when you have no hope. And there’s a whole science to how to find your power song. So believe me, I haven’t listened to some power song playlist for myself. For me, it’s pop songs that explode in a kind of aggression. It’s hard to explain, but like Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy are good examples of that. Where it sounds really hopeful but also angry. That’s a power song for me. For a lot of people, it’s going to be hip hop. For a lot of people, that’s going to be rock and roll, but yeah, you got to find your power songs.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:26:10] Yeah, I guess, and I don’t have to get lost in the woods to do it, but that’s another show for another day. Kelly McGonigal, thank you so much.
Kelly McGonigal: [01:26:17] Thank you.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:26:20] Solid episode. I really did love talking with Kelly. And by the way, if her name sounds familiar, it’s probably because — well, you’ve might have heard of her before — but if you’ve been a fan of the show for a while, we had her sister Jane McGonigal on, I think, in 2018 and they are twins. So if she looks familiar and sounds familiar, if you don’t know her work from somewhere else, maybe that’s why.
[01:26:39] Making meaning out of stress can reframe it from something that happens to you and downgrades you to something that is part of your natural coping mechanism so that you can crush barriers. Nature built this mechanism in you through evolution. So it’s a gift in a way. I know it feels like such a great gift sometimes. A lot of our stress knowledge, reasons we freak out about it so much, it’s based on animal studies. Rats and rat studies are why we’ve now freaked out so much about stress. “Oh, my God, it’s bad for you. It’s bad for your heart. It causes this. It causes that.” those aren’t totally wrong, but it makes it sound like stress has no advantages when it does and can.
[01:27:13] By the way, a quick little practical here. If you’re talking about exam or math anxiety or any other sort of hurdle that we go through on the daily, we can say to our friends, or whoever’s coming to us with a stressful problem, “You seem like the type of person who can handle that.” Now, this isn’t a magical phrase. But it did work on me when I was in my stress a few years back. And you have to remind those around you when they’re going through a tough time. Not that, “Oh, it’ll be over soon,” or, “Oh, it’s not as bad as you think.” The key is, “You seem like the type of person who can handle that.” That will help them reframe their stress response in a way that is building strength, like going to the gym and working out, not just something that will be over soon. Imagine if you were in a workout and someone said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.” Not exactly uplifting, right? But if they say, “Look, you can do this.” That’s how they encourage you in a class or with a trainer. They tell you that they don’t say, “Hey, well, you know what? This isn’t as bad as you think.” Maybe a bad trainer does, but look, a good trainer is going to tell you, “You can handle this.” You got to trust that your body’s stress response is there to support you.
[01:28:11] There’s a lot more in this book from compassion collapse. When we get stressed and wrapped up in other people’s stress and crap and how we sort of run out of compassion and it drains us. And also the defeat response was discussed a little bit. This is dangerous. This is what leads to depression and suicide. It happens when we are outcast or repeatedly traumatized. The answer when we feel really defeated and down — and I know because I’ve been there — is to actually go and help other people. That tend and befriend what we talked about earlier on the show. That is what will help you get out of this. I know that sounds counterintuitive. “Why would I go help others when I’m the one on the chopping block and when I’m the one that feels like I’m getting stomped on?” It does work because it activates that tend and befriend tendency, that stress management response. And that is exactly what your body is programmed to do to get rid of and process in a healthy way some of that stress.
[01:29:01] Again, big, thank you to Kelly McGonigal. The title of the book we did for the show today was The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It Her newest book is called The Joy of Movement. I’m sure that’s amazing as well. I just picked it up and stay tuned, we’ll probably end up doing a show about that type of thing too. Links to her stuff will be on the website in the show notes. Please use our website links. If you buy any of her books, it does help support the show. It can be anything that we have links for any author. Don’t worry if it’s not the book you want it. Go through our site. It does help. That stuff adds up folks. Got to pay those bills. Also in the show notes, there are worksheets for each episode, so you can review what you’ve learned here from Kelly McGonigal. We’ve got transcripts for each episode and whoever wants to read a podcast, and those can be found in the show notes as well.
[01:29:45] I’m teaching you how to connect with great people like Kelly McGonigal and manage relationships using systems, using tiny habits over in our Six-Minute Networking course. That’s free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Dig the well before you’re thirsty people build that network before you need it. This stuff takes six minutes a day, hence the name, jordanharbinger.com/course. It’s free. By the way, most of the guests on the show that you’re hearing, they subscribe to the course. Come join us, you’ll be in smart company where you belong. In fact, speaking of building relationships, reach out to Kelly McGonigal, tell her you enjoyed this episode of the show. She would love to hear it from you. I’m sure that. You never know what shakes out of that stuff, folks. I’m also at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. And you can add me on LinkedIn. I post more there than anywhere else right now these days. I will respond to your request.
[01:30:30] The show is created in association with PodcastOne. This episode was produced by Jen Harbinger, engineered by Jase Sanderson. Ads were fun because of Peter Oldring. Show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I’m your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions and those of our guests are their own. And yeah, I’m a lawyer, but I’m not your lawyer. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a therapist. Do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who’s stressed out a lot and is really down about it, share this with them. If you know someone who’s into psychology, share this with them. I found this one interesting. I really did. Hopefully, you find something great in every episode, but please do share the show with those you love. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we’ll see you next time.
[01:31:23] Now for a sneak peek into the Wondery Plus early access show Guru: Dark Side of Enlightenment. Download the Wondery app and start your 30-day free trial of Wondery Plus to listen now.
Narrator: [01:31:39] It was March 2009 and in a big chain hotel in New Jersey, a crowd milled around, waiting. Once the doors opened, everyone headed for the same place.
Female: [01:31:51] It was a large auditorium with a big stage in front?
Narrator: [01:31:55] The event was called The Harmonic Wealth Weekend, a rigorous two-day seminar that promised to get participants on the fast track to personal and professional success. It wasn’t the kind of thing Ginny Brown was normally into but her daughter Kirby had insisted that they go together. As they walked in, she had to admit the atmosphere was exciting.
Female: [01:32:17] And we had a walk through a gauntlet, I will say, of cheerleaders who were jumping up and down, revving up the energy in the room. And I remember saying to one woman, I say, “Man, you girls really had your coffee this morning.” And she said, “Oh, we don’t drink coffee. Like that’s poison.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, well, I do.”
Narrator: [01:32:38] Later that year after attending another James Ray event with her father Kirby Brown would get in her car and drive to Sedona, Arizona for a five-day intensive retreat with James called Spiritual Warrior. For James’ followers, it was the pinnacle event of their journey and Kirby spent her life savings, nearly $10,000 to be there. The retreat started on October 4th, 2009. Five days later, Ginny was at home in upstate New York. Around 8:00 a.m., the doorbell rang.
Female: [01:33:14] At 8:15, the trooper came to the door and asked me if I know Kirby Brown. You know my first thought was, “Oh, my God, is she in some kind of trouble?”
Narrator: [01:33:27] But it was more than trouble. Ginny would never see her daughter again.
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