Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She spent years telling people that stress was bad for them; that stress would increase their risk of experiencing all sorts of minor and major health issues. Then she came across a study that made her rethink stress. Her 2015 book, The Upside of Stress, is a fascinating and intriguing exploration of her journey through the research of stress (that first study and many others) and how science is now discovering that there is more than one stress response – and that there is indeed an upside to stress. Her TED Talk, above, has been viewed more than 17 million times.

McGonigal relates that there are three other stress responses besides flight, fight and freeze. Stress can also encourage you to: rise to the challenge; connect to others; and learn and grow. These responses and their indicators are described in the table below:

How the Stress Response Helps You How You Know It’s Happening
Rise to the Challenge

•Focuses your attention

•Heightens your senses

•Increases motivation

•Mobilizes energy

•Heart pounding, body sweating, breath quickening

•Mentally focused on source of stress

•Excited, energized, anxious, restless or ready for action


Connect with Others

•Activates prosocial instincts

•Encourages social connection

•Enhances social cognition

•Dampens fear & increases courage

•Desire proximity to friends & family

•Paying more attention to others

•More sensitive to others’ emotions

•Desire to protect, support or defend people, organizations or values you care about

Learn & Grow

•Restores nervous system balance

•Processes & integrates the experience

•Helps the brain learn & grow

•Body is calming down, but mentally charged

•Replaying or analyzing experience in mind or want to talk to others about it

•Mix of emotions along with desire to make sense of what happened


How we think about stress, McGonigal tells us, makes all the difference in how our body is impacted by stress. Studies indicate that before a stress-induing situation, like writing an exam or having a job interview, if people view their beating heart and sweaty palms as their body preparing them to think more quickly and clearly, then not only do they feel more positive and perform better on these tasks, they are also viewed by independent observers as more confident than people who continued to view their body’s response as stress.

Her TED Talk is 15 minutes. I highly recommend it and The Upside of Stress. What McGonigal has to say is hugely relevant to us all.