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Hi, pod fam! 

This season, we’re totally reframing true vitality and wellbeing. We’re talking about what I call our “10 pillars of health,” which include nutrition, environmental exposures, blood sugar regulation, social connection, and—what this ep is all about—stress transformation

We’ve all heard the term “stress management” and been taught to avoid and reduce stress as much as we possibly can…but that’s not really what we should be focusing on. We’re never going to live stress-free lives—and that’s actually not a bad thing when you think about it! Instead, we can and should focus on reframing the stress life throws at us because it’s providing us with opportunities for change or growth. Dare I say that stress can be a GOOD thing?

Okay, if you’re raising your eyebrow at this—first of all—I get it! Nobody likes being stressed out. So let’s let the expert explain. Joining us this week on the pod is Kelly McGonigal, PhD: a bestselling author, psychologist, and educator. She’s teaching us how stress affects our body, how our mindset can help influence that effect, and how we can harness our stress responses for good. Let’s get juicy!

First of all, what IS stress?

There’s a handful of dictionary or textbook definitions, but consider this my petition to replace them all with Kelly’s own: “Stress is what arises in you, when something that you care about is at stake.” It’s something that happens within you—not outside of you. And it’s a physical, biochemical, and psychological experience. 

Stress might look like your heart racing, hormones releasing to help you handle what’s happening, your thoughts and attention being focused/refocused, and any number of emotions from excitement to dread to anger.

Stress says, “this is a moment that matters.” And it tells us there’s something in that moment we can do to respond, engage, react, or grow.

Now, how we think about and react to stress is a wholeeee different story. There’s stress—and then there’s our perception of it, which is part of our “stress mindset.”

What’s your stress mindset?

Okay, your stress mindset is basically your relationship with stress. And this relationship could either lean to the toxic side or be more of a balanced, give-and-take vibe. To figure out where you stand, think about how you perceive stress—both as a whole and in the moment.

Stress in general:

  • Do you generally try to avoid stress and want to live a stress-free life?
  • Do you believe that stress is a part of life and want to harness/transform that energy?

Mindset, in times of stress:

  • How do you talk to yourself when you’re feeling stressed? 
  • Say your heart is pounding. Do you, A) say, “this is too much; I can’t handle it.” or B) say, “My heart is pounding right now because my heart is in it. And I care. This is what courage feels like.”

The craziest thing? How we talk to ourselves and how we think about stress can absolutely influence our stress response. And it’s not just our mood, either. Our thoughts can impact our immune function or our stress hormones or other responses. Isn’t that wild?! So, while we can’t eradicate stress from our lives, we CAN change how that stress affects us. 

And it starts with being present with ourselves and getting to know ourselves fully. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the theme of this whole podcast season! 

The Stress Response

So, you’re faced with a stressor. Maybe you have a big project due at work, or maybe you’re going through a breakup or experiencing money troubles. Your mind and body will respond to this stress in some way.

This can be a healthy response:

  • Just enough cortisol released to help you use the energy released by stress
  • In the right amount, cortisol is balanced by hormones like DHEA, which helps your body recover from stress. And this actually enhances immune function or brain resilience. 
  • It’s a totally different physical state than the stress we’re told is unhealthy/toxic. 

Or this can be an unhealthy response:

  • Prolonged physiological/psychological response 
  • Feels out of your control and/or you feel alone in your suffering
  • More likely to cause problems like killing brain cells, destroying immune function, dysregulating blood sugar, leading to depression, etc.

Psst: It’s not possible to only have healthy stress responses. We’re all human. But you CAN construct a life that helps you better respond to stress. Examples: building social support, choosing to live by your values, spending time in nature, getting regular exercise, etc.

Aside from healthy vs. unhealthy, we can respond to stress in any of these ways:

  • Threat response – this is your typical fight or flight (or freeze or fright or faint or flag); you might feel overwhelmed, angry, dysregulated 
  • Challenge/courage response – basically seeing the stressor as a challenge and rising to it; similar to fight or flight, but you feel fully resourced; subset of this is a compassion response (recognizing that something is at stake for someone else and rising to that challenge)
  • Social stress response – empathy-driven; similar to compassion; release hormones that support caregiving and connection; response outside of yourself
  • Post-traumatic growth – after a big stressor, your whole nervous system changes as you process things

Plasticity – Our Capacity for Change

Now for the good stuff. Kelly’s work is all about helping us find the upside of stress and reminding us that there’s joy to be found. And the upside of stress is that it can be an incredible opportunity for change. AND we get to play a role (in part) in how it changes us.

After certain events, we have an increased window of elasticity—where we can sort of reset our minds a bit. This could be after a major life event or something like starting a new exercise routine or prescription drug. It can also be after something that feels totally positive like falling in love, adopting a pet, or becoming a caregiver. Your brain plasticity increases to support this new role you’re in.

When that window hits, take that opportunity and run with it! Consider what you’re exposing yourself to—what media you’re consuming, who you’re spending time with. And also reflect on your values and how stress has led to positive changes in the past.

A Few More Juicy Bits

There’s so much more juicy goodness packed into this episode, but here’s some highlights:

  • Remember: You’re never the only one dealing with this. We ALL experience stress.
  • Trying to change your mindset? Expose yourself to ideas that are authentic and true to your values. Take a stance that supports your values.
  • We only learn resilience through the experience of stress and adversity.
  • You can’t rewrite history, but you aren’t doomed by those experiences. 
  • Even people who have been through great trauma have the same capacity for joy and meaning and connection as anyone else. 
  • You cannot over-interpret life as meaningful.

Happy mindset-shifting! Be sure to share your thoughts with me on IG: @shoporganicolivia.



Connect with Kelly McGonigal:

Visit her website

Watch her TED Talk

Follow @kellymariemcgonigal on IG

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