Science fiction and fantasy


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The Upside Of Stress

by Kelly McGonigal

According to received wisdom stress is lethal in large or chronic doses, a blight on our lives, and to be avoided at all costs. Kelly McGonigal challenges our approach to stress by examining the incompleteness of that theory and looking at what science can teach us about many aspects of stress.

First, some definitions. Stress is used to describe a wide range of things that bother us, from overfull email inboxes to exams to unexpected bear attacks. McGonigal's definition is "what arises when something you care about is at stake," a useful description that encompasses a host of biological responses.

There are plenty of references to body chemistry: ghrelin, cortisol, DHEA, adrenaline, oxytocin, and more get dealt with. What is surprising is the link between many of these and a person's state of mind or beliefs. The book explains Mindset Interventions, a technique used to improve people's behaviour long-term, and their effectiveness even after an intervention that takes little time and is largely forgotten. Some aspects of the emerging science of stress are counter-intuitive, such as the relationship between stress levels and trust.

Most people's first thought of stress is in relation to the fight or flight response, but that's only one type of response. The author examines the tend and befriend instinct, the "defeat" response and its dangers, and the "challenge" response which helps people to perform under pressure. There's also a lot about the effect of stress on our memories.

Your response to stress may depend on a number of factors such as history, genetics, and practice, but this book is also somewhat of a self-help manual in that it suggests ways to improve how we deal with this condition. A key part of McGonigal's definition is "something you care about", and this point about what is meaningful to us, and what we value, is presented as a crucial part of how we can learn to benefit from adversity. Without meaning our lives may be less stressful, but they can also be more boring and less fulfilling.

There are plenty of examples of people dealing with stress in different ways to illustrate the points the author makes. Whether it's the experiences of prisoners caring for each other, people setting up social support groups, or stories of medical students trying to avoid burnout through learning about their values, there are many things to take away from this book. It does deliver on its promise in the sense of explaining in detail the benefits of stress, and by presenting strategies to make the most of it. It tells you less about how to reduce stress, and more about why you may not need to bother trying, and why in many cases struggling to calm yourself can be just as damaging.

Unfortunately, the ebook version includes a large and unnecessary index that's only useful for the paperback, making this book seem longer than it actually is. Nevertheless, it's a worthwhile read that takes an in-depth look at a health issue that affects everyone to some extent. The very title made my hackles rise, but by the last page the research convinced me to think about the topic differently.

7th June 2018

4 star rating

Review ©

Source: own copy

Book Details

Year of release: 2015

Categories: Books

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