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The Power of Stress

By Brithany and Estefhany Medina Hernandez

Based on research by Kelly McGonigal

Orginally presented as research at NAU

What we know about stress:

  • Stress increases Cardiovascular diseases, getting a cold, depression, addiction, faster aging, damages DNA, and kills brain cells.

  • Media propagates these studies and promotes “stress-reducing” activities to reduce stress in our lives.

  • What used to be considered as moderate stress is now seen as too high.

  • “We need to change everything about our lives first, and then we will be happy.”

“There is no single definition of stress that can encompass all these things, and yet we use that word to refer to all of them.”

Study done on rats by Hans Selye in 1936

  • Rats developed ulcers and immune system failure due to stress.

  • Exposed to extreme conditions: too hot/cold, exercise, noise, caged, getting stuck with needles…among others.

  • Stress: “the response of the body to any demand made on it.”

  • Most studies are done in animals, not humans, which undergo stress that is not considered everyday “human stress.”

Based on a TED TALK by Kelly McGonigal

  • First study concluded that people who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die.

  • They had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

  • In a study participants were taught to rethink their stress as helpful before encountering a stress test.

  • “Pounding heart is preparing you for action”.

  • “Breathing faster is getting more oxygen to your brain”.

  • Participants’ physical stress response changed.

  • Blood vessels stayed relaxed, just like in situations of joy and courage.

  • Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone that motivates you to seek support.

  • Protects cardiovascular system from effects of stress by helping the heart regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage.

  • Studies results suggested people who spent time caring for others showed no stress-related increase in dying. Caring created resilience.

  • Harmful effects of stress are not inevitable, you can create the biology of courage and resilience by connecting with others during stressful experiences.

“The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal

  • Focuses on helping you change your mindset about stress

  • Practice rethinking with your own experiences

  • See the good and the bad of stress

  • A more balanced view of stress, “fear it less, trust yourself to handle it, and to use it as a resource for engaging in life.”

  • Mindsets—“a filter that you see everything through.” “They are core beliefs that reflect your philosophy of life.”

  • Example: One’s view on age and getting older: people who have a more “positive attitude toward growing older engage in more health-promoting behaviors”

Stress Mindset Interventions

  • Stress mindsets affect the way you think and act

  • “A single intervention” can change your perspective and benefit your health and success on a long-term basis.

  • “Different relationship to the stress in their lives” by seeing it as a “challenge” rather than “overwhelming.”

Stress responses

  • Fight-or-flight seen as only stress response, but there are more stress responses that your body supports.

  • Challenge response: increases confidence, taking action, learning from experience and strengthen social relationships.

  • Gives you energy and helps you perform under pressure. Feel focused not fearful, higher levels of DHEA.

  • Tend – and – Befriend response: increases courage, motivates caregiving and strengthens social relationships through the release of Oxytocin.

Oxytocin: “The Love Hormone”

  • Helps “build and strengthen social bonds”

  • It makes you want to connect with others, trust and help those around you.

“it is a chemical of courage”

  • In stressful situations you release oxytocin, which is a way of your brain telling you to reach out to people around you.

“Stress can literally strengthen your heart.”

  • Oxytocin is also good for cardiovascular health as it helps heart cells regenerate and repair.

“Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for resilience—

one that motivates you to care for others while also strengthening your physical health.”

Studies on Stress Mindset Interventions

  • Housekeepers working at hotels.

  • Two-thirds of them did not believe they were exercising, and their bodies reflected this belief.

  • A groups of them was shown a poster about how they were burning a lot of calories through their work.

  • When they went back to check on them, the group that was shown the poster lost weight and body fat.

“The effect you expect is the effect you get.”

Another Study: “viewing stress as helpful created a different biological reality”

  • Participants would be part of a mock job interview, where interviewers were trained to give negative feedback.

  • Some people were shown a video about the benefits of stress, while the other half was shown a video of how stress is harmful for one’s health.

  • Results: Those that were shown the video of how stress is good for you showed higher DHEA levels, and cortisol levels were not affected.

DHEA Hormone

  • Hormone released when a person is stressed.

  • Helps your brain grow and become more resilient by learning to thrive in stressful situations.

Meaningful Life = Stressful Life

“Stress challenges us to find the meaning in our lives.”

  • “Human beings have an innate instinct and capacity to make sense out of suffering.”

  • “To be able to see both sides of stress but choose to see the upside; to feel your own distress and yet also decide to focus on how that stress connects to what you care about.”

What about Anxiety?

Studies show that people with anxiety, in comparison to those without anxiety, have a better stress response. People with anxiety disorders are more aware of their symptoms in a stressful situation. Everyone experiences an increase in heart rate and adrenaline, but people with anxiety just perceive them differently.

“If you are willing to rethink your stress response, it may help you recognize your strength and access your courage.”

Another Study:

For people with an anxiety disorder who are “encouraged to embrace their anxiety, a stronger physical response was associated with more confidence and better performance under pressure and social scrutiny.”

  • Participants, who were university students of which half had social anxiety, underwent a Social Stress Test:

    • They were to give a speech to a panel of “experts” and then take a math test

  • Separated in two groups, of which one was shown a mindset intervention to rethink stress as good

    • After the mindset intervention, those with social anxiety showed less anxiety and shame, more eye contact and confidence.

    • It did not calm them down, rather it changed the meaning.

Outward appearances do not always reflect the struggles within. Defeat response leads to despair and fear, hopelessness, isolation and to feel disconnected.”

  • McGonigal suggests to “increase your awareness of other people’s suffering…be more open about yours.”

“There is power in the stories we tell and in the stories

we pay attention to”

A Tool For Empowerment: “stress response helps you engage, connect, and grow.”

  • By focusing on how you want to respond, you will push your biology in that direction.

  • Genes and experiences set predispositions but are not “destiny.”

  • Your body can adapt, so you are constantly reshaping your brain and body through the actions you take to deal with stress.

  • You teach your body how to react.

How can you start?

  • Accept the event.

  • Plan on how to deal with it through advice or help.

  • Take the steps to overcome it.

  • Use it as an opportunity to grow

When you feel stressed take a moment to think about how you are feeling. Again, the power is in shifting your focus to mindfulness, in order to reflect and be aware of the effects stress has in your body and thoughts.

“Remember that your stress response is giving you energy and encouraging you to act.”

Three-step process to practice a new mindset whenever you feel stressed:

1. Acknowledge stress and how it affects your body.

2. Welcome the stress by recognizing it is a response to something you care about.

3. Make use of the energy that stress is giving you.


  • Bring into mind a recent experience that you would describe as stressful.

  • Read “The Stress Response Helps You Rise to the Challenge, Connect with other, and Learn and Grow” chart, and take a few moments to consider which of these aspects were present during or after your stressful experience, and describe in writing what you felt.

  • Can you choose to rethink these same symptoms as signs that your body and brain are helping you cope? If there is one part of your stress response that you dislike, consider what role it plays in helping you protect yourself, rise to a challenge, connect with others, or learn and grow. Take a few moments to write about your experience from this point of view.


Any moment can become a turning point in how you experience stress, if you choose to make it one.”

  • self doubt 🢫 Confidence

  • fear 🢫 Courage

  • isolation 🢫 Connection

  • suffering 🢫 Meaning

“If you have butterflies in your stomach, invite them into your heart.” –Cooper Edens.

Works Cited

  • McGonigal, Kelly. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” YouTube, 4 Sept. 2013,

  • McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Avery, 2016.

“The most meaningful challenges in your life will come with a few dark nights” -McGonigal


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