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Kelly McGonigal

The Positive Side of Stress, and Science of Self-Control

How's your stress level?

How’s your stress level? 

Stress is a normal part of life. We all feel it sometimes! And lately, it feels like we’re even more stressed than usual — we’re worried about our jobs, our families, our health… and the pandemic isn’t making any of that easier.

While some stress is normal, this much isn’t healthy. We’ve got to find a better way to manage our stress so we can live the healthiest, happiest lives possible. Here’s the good news: I’ve got stress-expert Kelly McGonigal here to teach us what to do.

Kelly is a genius. She’s a leader in the field of wellness and stress management, and she’s carefully studied stress and self-control. She even has a new book out: The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. It’s a fascinating book that I know is going to change a lot of lives.

Kelly is on a mission to figure out what practical steps we can take in our day-to-day lives to increase our mental well-being and maximize our potential as humans. And today, we’re diving deep into some of her research and wisdom! We’re talking about how you can actually make stress your friend, why being active is just as important for your brain as it is for your body, the four steps you can take to defeat depression, and so much more. This interview is interesting, exciting, and powerful. Let’s get started!

Who Is Kelly McGonigal? 

Kelly McGonigal, PhD is a health psychologist at Stanford University, as well as a best-selling author and popular TED speaker. She specializes in the mind-body connection, and her research is impacting tons of people and empowering them to manage their stress and start living happier and more hopeful lives.

Kelly has written multiple books, often drawing from the popular courses she teaches at Stanford for research and inspiration. Her first book, The Willpower Instinct, is based on her course “The Science of Willpower,” and her second, The Upside of Stress, grew out of the course “Living Well with Stress.” Her latest book, The Joy of Movement, didn’t grow out of a class, but it’s still full of great information about how physical exercise can be a powerful antidote for anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

In addition to being a prolific writer and popular Stanford professor, Kelly’s also a hit on YouTube! Her TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” has received over 10 million views, and I have a feeling it’s about to receive a lot more. It’s an inspiring message about why stress can actually be helpful, and it suggests that reaching out to others can be an incredible way to reduce stress in our lives.

Beyond her academic work, Kelly is passionate about giving back, and she does a lot of work with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism. In fact, she helped create the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training, a course taught worldwide to help individuals develop greater empathy, compassion, and social connection.

And as if all that weren’t enough, Oprah’s O Magazine named Kelly the first-ever O! Visionary and celebrated her as a person whose groundbreaking way of seeing the world means a better future for us all.

Kelly McGonigal is an inspiring person. Her research is making the world a better, less stressed-out place every day. I’m so excited to have her here on The School of Greatness today!

Here’s the Truth About Stress 

Can stress actually be good for you? Does it save our lives or kill us? Kelly trained as a health psychologist and was initially taught to view stress as the enemy. But her perspective changed ten years ago when she came across an insightful article:

“It was a study that tracked about 30,000 adults for almost a decade in the U.S. At the beginning of the study, they asked people first, ‘How stressful is your life? And then also, ‘Do you believe that your stress … is bad for your health?’… And what they found is that for the subset of people who had very stressful [lives] and most strongly believed that their stress was harmful, they had a 43% increased risk of dying from any cause over the next decade. But the people who had the most stressful lives and did not strongly believe that stress was bad for them, they were the most likely to be alive at the end of the decade. … This study caught my attention because first of all, it suggests that stress is not always the enemy.” – Kelly McGonigal 

So if stress isn’t the enemy, what is? Why do we see so many people suffering from stressful lifestyles? Kelly explained that it really comes to how our brains handle stress — not the stress itself. 

How do you respond to stress? Do you automatically view it as negative? Because if you do, your body is going to have a negative response. But if we can rewire our stress response into something positive, then we set ourselves up for success. 

“Stress is what arises in you when something that you care about is at stake. It’s your thoughts, your emotions, your biology … it’s the adrenaline. … It’s all the stuff that emerges to help you meet a moment that matters. … In moments of stress … some of [your] instincts are going to be healthy and helpful and others are not. So rather than stress being good or bad, it’s about learning more about your stress responses.” – Kelly McGonigal

What are some healthy ways to respond to stress? Kelly gave a few great examples. Maybe you need to slow down for a bit and meditate. Perhaps you need to reach out to a friend or family member for help. Or maybe you’re in a situation where you have to rise to the challenge and let your adrenaline take over. Before reacting to stress, take a moment to ask yourself, “How should I respond to this situation?” 

Believe it or not, stress is actually very similar to excitement on a physiological level. Your heart’s pounding, hormones are running through your bloodstream, and you’re full of energy. The negativity and positivity come in once you attach a meaning to that energy. If you can push into that stressful energy and view it as excitement, your brain chemistry will start to change over time.

“We know that as soon as people do that, it starts to subtly shift their physiology in a way that actually is a little bit healthier than a fight or flight response. So, you’re relaxed. You get more energy [and] less inflammation in your body. You’re starting to move towards a stress state that really is just helping you have energy and courage and enjoy the moment. And it also increases positive emotions like confidence and enthusiasm. It makes you better able to connect with other people too.” – Kelly McGonigal 

Who knew that stress could be good for you? It all comes down to how you respond and what stories you choose to tell yourself. It might take time to change the narrative, but once you do, you’ll find that stressful situations will give you the adrenaline and enthusiasm to accomplish great things. 

“The neural signature of exercise is to set you up to be a more social version of yourself.” @kellymcgonigal  

4 Ways to Combat Depression

In addition to learning the truth about stress, I wanted to hear Kelly’s advice on depression — specifically, how do we treat it, especially if it’s so ingrained in our thinking and emotional responses? How can you begin thinking positively when you’re stuck in a cycle of negative thinking? 

One of Kelly’s biggest missions in life is “helping people who find themselves in circumstances they would have not have chosen for themselves.” This could be dealing with grief, trauma, or struggling with mental illness. In our interview, Kelly gave us four ways that you can combat depression that I think are extremely useful for these chaotic times. 

#1. Seek help from resources available to you, such as medication, therapy, and exercise. Don’t sit alone in depression. The important thing is that you seek help and don’t try to deal with it on your own. If you’ve been experiencing long-term depression, talk to your doctor about therapy or about possibly starting medication. 

In addition to medication and therapy, Kelly also recommends exercise as the number one resource to combat depression: 

“Exercise: number one. And I know how that sounds to somebody who’s depressed. I know because I’ve actually been in the state where it was so hard to move. … Even if you’re depressed, that [adrenaline] tends to kick in immediately. … As your brain learns how to benefit from exercise, you will start to get an exercise high that gives you high levels of endocannabinoids and dopamine and endorphins. … And then six weeks, eight weeks, months later, you see changes in the structure of the brain that can only be compared to what you see from the most cutting edge neurological treatments for depression, things like deep brain stimulation.” – Kelly McGonigal 

When you’re depressed, exercise may seem like the LAST thing you want to do, but it has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. You could start simply by taking a walk every morning. By moving your body, you produce hormones that change your brain chemistry, which changes your way of thinking. 

#2. Find a way to be of service to others. Guys, this one is huge. Kelly explained that depression creates a “defeat response,” where you believe that no one cares for you or you don’t make a difference in the world.

“The fastest way to get contradictory evidence is to volunteer, to help someone. … The thing that is so great about helping others or volunteering is … that whatever good is in you … it just gets reflected back to you.” – Kelly McGonigal 

Not only that, but helping those who may be less fortunate than you also gives you perspective. It helps you see that you aren’t the only one struggling and that there are people who can help you. 

#3. Rescue an animal. When you have a relationship with something who depends on you, like with an animal, this is incredibly helpful for depression, trauma, and grief. 

“Research studies have been done with groups of people who are healed through their relationships and [by] providing care to animals. People who experienced enormous childhood trauma and [viewed] themselves as essentially broken … then go out and adopt or train the animal who is going to be euthanized. It was violent, or it was rejected, or it was abandoned. And in providing that care, and [they] see the enormous beauty and wonder in that animal and they see it in [them.]” – Kelly McGonigal 

Rescuing animals is a beautiful thing, and it not only helps the animal but the owner as well. If you’re able, definitely consider adopting an animal into your family — by providing for it, you’ll be filled with purpose. 

#4. Meditate. You all know that meditation is something that has transformed my life, and it has amazing results for those who are struggling with depression as well. 

“The thing that I love about meditation when it’s the right fit is [that] we know there’s something about the quality of attention and intention that you can develop through contemplative practices. That changes how you experience difficult moments in life when you really need qualities like courage, acceptance, or hope. … So in moments when everything is falling apart, suddenly you have the mental ability to hold onto hope or focus on what matters.” – Kelly McGonigal 

If you haven’t tried meditation before, don’t be intimidated. It’s a way for you to refocus your thoughts and visualize possibilities. Instead of focusing on what terrible things could happen, focus on what could happen right! And if something does go wrong in your day, meditation allows you to keep yourself from despair. 

The Science of Self-Control and Willpower

These practices that Kelly mentioned — exercise, therapy, mediation, etc. — are all positive habits we can start praticing. But sometimes it’s hard for us to get motivated or stay consistent. It’s difficult to resist the addictions or negative thinking patterns of the past. So how do we develop the willpower to keep choosing a healthy lifestyle?

Thankfully for us, Kelly’s topic of expertise is self-control and willpower, and she shared some wisdom on how we can strengthen our wills. First, here’s her definition of willpower: 

“I define willpower as the ability to make choices that are consistent with your most important goals and values.” – Kelly McGonigal 

What is something you want to achieve? You have your answer? Now, why do you want to achieve it? If you don’t assign a meaning to the goal you want to achieve, whether it be to write a book, become a millionaire, or go to the Olympics, then your willpower to achieve that goal will break. 

A lot of people define willpower as suppressing desires, but it’s more than that. Kelly gave the example of someone who wants to eat healthier so that they can have more energy. Cutting out bad eating habits can be really difficult, and it’s absurd to assume that you can change all your habits in just one day. 

“You don’t have to change everything tomorrow. You make one choice today that is consistent with your overall vision. And it is amazing — the upward spiral you can create when that’s the standard you set for yourself. You look for opportunities to make any choice that’s consistent with your goal or your value, and then you start to experience the benefits of it.” – Kelly McGonigal 

Willpower is less about “I have to have control all the time” and is more about “I’m going to create an environment that supports my values.” Don’t set impossible standards for yourself — get clear on what goals you want to achieve and why you want to achieve them and start making choices every day that support your vision. 

Why You Should Listen to This Kelly McGonigal Podcast Episode Right Now…

Guys, this article barely scratches the surface of Kelly McGonigal’s expertise. This interview was really powerful, and I hope that I can have Kelly back on The School of Greatness sometime in the future! Definitely check out her newest book, The Joy of Movement, which is all about how exercise helps us find happiness, hope, connection, and courage.

When I asked Kelly what her definition of greatness is, she began by saying she had looked up “greatness” in the dictionary. It had said that ‘greatness’ is the quality of being ‘better or superior than others.’ This wasn’t a definition Kelly was interested in.

“Human nature has a lot of instincts that are destructive and harmful. And human nature has a lot of instincts that are beautiful and wonderful. I would define greatness … [as] making peace with that truth and being able to make choices that bring out [the good] in myself and bring out in other people. … That’s what I’m striving for. And I think like that’s a definition of greatness that anyone can aspire to in themselves.” – Kelly McGonigal 

I was inspired by Kelly’s answer, and I hope you are too! Definitely listen to or watch the full episode, and if you enjoy it, tag Kelly, @kellymariemcgoigal, and me, @lewishowes, with a screenshot of the episode and your greatest takeaways on Instagram. We would love to hear how this episode has inspired you.  

 

To Greatness,

Lewis Howes - Signature

“You have to let your heart be broken by the things that are wrong and difficult in the world.” @kellymcgonigal  

Some Questions I Ask:

  • Can I really make stress my friend?
  • What are some tools to respond more constructively to stressful situations?
  • Why is depression so common in humans?
  • How can exercise improve your brain in addition to your body?
  • Is the “Runner’s High” a real thing?
  • Why is it sometimes hard to accept compassion and compliments?
  • How can we improve our self-control?

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How there’s no such thing as good or bad stress, just good or bad reactions to stress
  • That stress and excitement are biologically almost identical
  • A four-step process to combatting depression
  • The science behind physical activity’s positive effects on your mental health
  • What happens to your body during different types of exercise
  • The real biological value of loneliness
  • That willpower is a mind-body response, and you can take actionable steps to improve it
  • Plus much more…
Connect with
Kelly McGonigal

Transcript of this Episode

Music Credits:

Music Credit:

Kaibu by Killercats

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