Is Stress As Deadly As We Believe?

Sometimes the impact that stress has on our lives and health is a matter of perspective. Here’s when you can use stress to your advantage.

Is Stress As Deadly As We Believe?
[Photo: Flickr user Wonderlane]

If you find yourself constantly sweating the small stuff, chronic stress may have already taken a toll on your health. Proven over and over to be lethal, the ill effects of stress range from negatively impacting sleep to causing heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even death.


When stress is out of control, it can isolate you from others, and we know extreme isolation has serious consequences.

But stress is impossible to avoid. This is especially true of those of lower socioeconomic status where stress can often feel smothering and unmanageable. Aside from the most serious forms of stress, Kelly McGonigal, psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, says that most of our everyday interactions with stress don’t have to be pernicious. In fact, if we are aware of stress and know how to use it to our advantage, it can actually make us smarter, stronger, and happier.

“Stress is not a sign you can’t handle it,” McGonigal recently said at the Fun Fearless Life conference hosted by Cosmopolitan. “It’s a sign to step forward.” This is same message she gives in her book, The Upside of Stress and wildly popular 2013 TED talk titled, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.

While stress has been proven to kill you, McGonigal says it can only really hurt you if you believe that it can. She points to a 2012 study by Whitney P. Witt that converted her original view that stress is bad. For years, McGonigal counseled people to avoid stress. Then, she came across Witt’s study, which says that stressful experiences are only harmful when the sufferers believe it to be so, and those who did not view stress as harmful were the healthiest people.

Can Stress Be Good For Us?

From this study–and the many others she’s found that backs the “stress is good” thesis–McGonigal affirms that stress is good because it forces people to rise to the challenge. In fact, she says studies that show stress is bad are often based on experiment models where the animals are tortured to keep them in a state of stress. McGonigal says this can’t be comparable to the daily stress that most people endure.

Biology tells us that stress triggers our body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response, and the hormonal chemical cortisol is released in our body. At the same time, our digestive and immune systems shut down temporarily, forcing our bodies to stay in fighting mode. If we are constantly in this state (think: wild animal being hunted or chased by a predator), it’ll eventually become a biological habit, and we’ll no longer be able to perform at maximum potential, according to Leslie Sherlin, a psychologist, neuroperformance specialist, and the cofounder of the brain-training company SenseLabs.


When you feel that fight-or-flight response, McGonigal says to think of that anxiety as meaning you’re about to embark on something important to you.

“Stress and anxiety is just your body saying you care about something,” she explained at the Fun Fearless Life event.

So how can people make it work for them? In the The Upside of Stress, McGonigal presents three ways of thinking about stress:

  1. Acknowledge stress when it’s happening.
  2. Welcome stress because it means you’re facing something you care about.
  3. Use the adrenaline the “fight-or-flight” response has given you to tackle the thing that is causing you stress.

“Choosing to see the upside in our most painful experiences is part of how we can change our relationship with stress,” she writes.

The Exception To The Rule

However, like most things in life, according to McGonigal, stress can be positive until it’s not, like a trauma or other cases of suffering. In these instances, putting a positive spin on the anxiety you feel might help you function better, but it doesn’t mean the stress you feel isn’t negatively impacting your body, as psychologist Robert Epstein points out in his review of McGonigal’s book in Scientific American.

“Although [McGonigal’s] strategy might work for some, there are still thousands of studies showing the ill effects of stress on the immune system, mood, the brain, sleep, sexual functioning, you name it,” writes Epstein. “If some people feel and function better when we tell them stress is good, I’m all for it. But stress is still a killer.”


About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.