The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 49

Kelly McGonigal

Why Stress Is Good For You

Have we been misled about stress? Kelly McGonigal thinks so—she had been teaching her students at Stanford that stress was all bad until she found little known research that disagreed. Now, she’s the author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It. By accepting, not avoiding stress, we can lead healthier, more productive lives. In this special hour-long episode, we look at stress, its impact on leadership, as well as personal obstacles both Kelly and I been faced. Discover the three steps we can use to change mindsets in ourselves and others.


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Book: The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It
Bio: Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. As a pioneer in the field of “science-help,” her mission is to translate insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support personal well-being and strengthen communities.

She is the author of several books, including the international bestseller The Willpower Instinct and her latest book the The Upside of Stress. Her 2013 TED talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend, is one of the 20 Most Viewed TED talks of all time, with 10 million views.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast, I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With me today is Kelly McGonigal. She is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She’s written the bestseller, The Willpower instinct and most recently “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You and How To Get Good at it”. I adore Kelly from speaking with her briefly already. Also, I think she’s super smart and super interesting and writes about very applicable issues. She’s the leader in the field – I think she may have invented this term – Science-Help as opposed to self-help. I love that idea. She’s passionate about translating cutting edge research from psychology, neuro-science and medicine into practical strategies for health happiness and personal success.

It’s everything that we talk about in this podcast – how do you take academic research, How do you take the science that’s going on in the world, and apply it to leadership, apply it to the way we actually show up in the world day-in day-out, that’s Kelly’s focus.

Kelly, welcome to the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Kelly: Thank you for having me.

Peter: We just talked about the idea that stress is bad for you. Everybody knows stress is bad for you. You’re a yoga teacher, I’ve taught yoga. In many ways it’s about reducing stress. It turns out though that we may be misleading people and we may have been misled ourselves in some ways. Can you tell me about that?

Kelly: Let me just start off by saying, I’m trained in three fields basically, psychology, medicine and these mind/body traditions like yoga and meditation. In every single one of those fields, I was trained to believe that stress was the enemy and everything that we do is to reduce stress or manage stress because stress gives rise to anything you don’t want whether it’s depression or getting divorced or diseases like stress is the leading cause of all things we don’t want. That’s what I was taught and that the only reasonable goal was to try to help people avoid it or reduce it.

The origin story that we were talking about, I do a lot of teaching like the science of classes at Stanford, the science of Willpower, the science of compassion. One of my classes is the science of stress. Of course, in that class I have this big fancy lecture on how stress will kill you in many wonderful ways. I’ve just given that lecture. I read scientific studies the way other people breathe. I spend way too much time everyday just doing lit searches and seeing what’s new. I’m always consuming new research. While I was teaching this class, this was, I think it was 2011, this new paper was published that had a title that was something like “stress will kill you”. That’s what I got out of the title. I’m like quickly downloading it, I’m like great-

Peter: Awesome.

Kelly: When I read this study here’s what the study actually was. It was an epidemiological study that had followed for almost a decade, I think it was like 30,000 adults in the US, and had asked them at the beginning of the study how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They also asked them this curious question I’ve never really seen before in a study, do you think that your stress is harmful? Then they looked at basically who died over the next decade.

What they found is that there was no direct relationship between how stressful your life was and your risk of dying but there was an interaction effect that among people who had the most stressful lives, those who also at the beginning of the study strongly believed that their stress was harmful, harmful to their health, they had an increased risk of dying. The people who had the most stress in their lives and did not view stress as extremely harmful were the most likely to be alive at the end of the study. That they were likely to be alive than people who had no stress or very little stress.

The researchers of the study, they actually estimated that something like 20,000 people a year in this country were dying not from stress but from having stressful lives and believing that their stress was harmful. I think I must have read that study like 5 times. I was, “No, no, this cannot be.” Talk about cognitive dissidence, I have just given this wonderful lecture about how stress will kill you. This was a real wake up moment for me despite the fact that this was an epidemiological study, it wasn’t an experiment, you can argue lots of reasons to not rush out and change everything you believe based on this one particular study. It certainly was compelling enough to make me wonder whether what I was doing was creating a mindset that was going to basically amplify any of the harmful effects of stress.

Actually, to tell you the truth, I was, “this study does not exist”. I put it away for a little while.

Peter: The denial stage because it doesn’t reinforce everything that you knew and have been teaching.

Kelly: I know. Sometimes this happens where a study comes out and I’ll be like, “Are people talking about the study? Has anyone else read it?” Nobody was tweeting about this particular study, no big press releases about it so I sat on it not for months. I sat on it for a couple of weeks. I decided that my last lecture that class I was going to dig up some research that I didn’t often include because I didn’t really know what to make of it.

This was the other research I had seen that if you think more positively stress, that stress can be good for you. Because that research, also it was sort of, it was a little bit inconsistent with the dominant message that I had been trained in, that I was teaching that stress was bad, you need to cope better with stress or reduce stress, I hadn’t really exploited this other research that suggests you can turn stress into something positive by embracing it. I decided to bring that into that class.

At the end of the course when you get your evals, people were talking about how great that lecture was. I had some emails from students telling me that they were immediately applying it to their benefit. This is research for example by Jeremy Jameson who has looked at how when people are really anxious. If they recognize that they’re pounding heart is trying to give them the energy or that their racing thoughts, it’s their mind beginning to get focused on the task at hand, that if you understand that your stress symptoms are actually your body and brain trying to help you rise to the challenge and you don’t try to calm down. You’re like, “Oh, stress, okay, this is a resource. Th is not proof that I am going to choke or that I don’t belong here or that I cant’ handle this”.

When people take that more positive view, they do better, their stress response is healthier, they recover from stressful experiences faster and then all this other research since that first “aha” moment for me that just continued to come out suggesting again that when you embrace stress, not only does it make you healthier and happier and more successful, it changes the way you interact with other people, it changes the way other people perceive you. It’s contagious so that when your stress mindset is more positive that the people you manage for example, they’re better able to handle stress. A lot of research has come out since then but that was really the wake up call because, I don’t know about you but I take my role as a teacher very seriously.

Science is fun, I love doing research but my core goal in life is to help people thrive. I’m very attend to feedback whether it’s direct feedback from individuals or feedback from the universe or feedback from science that says something I’m doing may not be effective that there might be a more skillful way to reduce people’s suffering or to help people thrive. That’s what that wake up call was about for me, it made me curious. I’m really glad I’ve listened because my experience the last 5 years of shifting how I talks about stress and teach stress. I have become quite convinced that for many people giving up on the fantasy that you’ll ever have a stress-free life is incredibly useful and allows us to engage with stress in a way that we actually can reap some of the lesser appreciated benefits of stress like its association with meaning.

Peter: There’s so much to unpack here. You’ve said so much here. I think, first of all, stress drives me and it drives me in a really positive way. What you just said about meaning is really critical – that if you want to do anything worth doing in this world, you’re going to push yourself to your edge. That, in it of itself, is going to be stressful. There’s just no way that you would want to avoid that because that kind of stress means that you’re expanding your comfort zone and you’re going into areas that are new and you are expanding your capacity to act in the world and that’s really critical.

There’s this point that you described so beautifully and it’s so human and so real. I appreciate you saying it and I want to explore it for minute which is this moment of saying, “Ooh! I’ve read this research that basically contradicts everything I know and everything I’ve been teaching and everything I’m public about, that I’m out there and public about this and it’s going to shift something for me, I don’t know that I really want to just put it out there. Coming to terms with it and knowing that seeking the truth is more important than what you stood for before.

I remember this thing I read about Gandhi, I don’t know if it’s true or not but I read it where he was on a 3-day march with a thousand followers, he stopped halfway and he meditated and he sat and then he said, “I’m turning around”, and they said, “What do you mean you’re turning around?” He said, “I’m turning around because I think what we’re doing is wrong”. They say, “But how could you turn around, there’s a thousand people behind us?” He says, “I would rather be true than consistent. I would rather hold to the value of what we’re doing than worry about how I’m seen”. You demonstrated that beautifully and I want to go into the emotional courage of that moment. What is that? What tipped it for you to say, “I’m going to actually contradict what I’ve been doing for the last 5 years because I’ve gotten new information”?

Kelly: There are a couple of things. I love that you use the word courage because that’s one of the strengths that I feel like I was not born with, that I’m always trying to cultivate. There are a couple things. One I will say is that my training in [zen 00:11:27] has been very helpful, that’s the type of meditation that I’ve studied for the past, almost 20 years. The whole point of zen is to wake up and to not believe everything you think, there are many other gems where you spend a lot of time trying to see things clearly rather than hold on to pre-conceived notions or whatever your sense of identity is. I had a lot of good training and holding that as a value.

Thinking that that gave me the courage to do it is, I have a history of teaching acceptance as the panacea for a lot of different type of suffering. Before this book, my first book was about dealing chronic pain, my next book was about behavior change and willpower and so that dealt with everything from cravings and addiction to intrusive thoughts and trauma, all the things we don’t necessarily want to have inside of us.

I have consistently found in the research that when you accept inner experiences whether it’s pain or craving or an emotion or a memory, when you accept it rather than resists it, when you look for what it can teach you or how you can harness it or how you can transform it, those are all the more effective strategies than trying to resist it or avoid it. I knew that in my bones, my own experience with chronic pain, living with chronic pain, I knew it. I knew it from direct experience of teaching people who suffer from things that I don’t experience myself like addiction or a sever mental illness having seen this process play out.

The thing that finally gave me the courage to fundamentally change the way I teach stress is that is I have to ask myself, why do I believe that acceptance rather than resistance and avoidance is the key to relieving all suffering except for stress? Why am I holding on to the idea that stress is somehow fundamentally separate from every other aspect of life? The only conclusion I could come up with is because that’s what I’ve been trained, that that’s what our culture, that is like our cultural belief. It’s a shorthand for a whole way of trying to engage with life and it’s just easy to think in those terms because people don’t want to be uncomfortable, because people want to believe they can control their life’s experiences.

This label, I’m reading we don’t want stress and then we’ll promise you that we have the tool to help you avoid it. I’m like, that’s the way that our culture works. The thing that gave me the courage was to be like, “well I know that’s not true for pain even though we wanted it to be true for pain. I know it’s not true for addiction although we want it to be. I know it’s not true for trauma and intrusive memories and difficult emotions, we don’t want to feel, I don’t want to feel fear. That’s one of the emotions I had to come to accept.

I know all that so why on Earth would it not be true for stress? That gave me courage. The other thing is experimentation, to start teaching this and see what happens and what feedback I get and how it either empowers people or not. Am I [inaudible 00:14:33] that empowered people.

Peter: I’m hearing three main things too. It’s that, one is you didn’t dismissed the research, that you may have sat on it for a little bit while you’re thinking about it the whole time. There is this cognitive dissonance with what new information is coming in that’s different than the old information that you knew and you’re mulling it over. There is this stage where you’re not ready to go public with anything yet because you don’t really know what it is but you’re not totally dismissing it either.

It’s actually a very sweet, private stage of filtering information. It sort of says, there’s something interesting here, I don’t exactly know what it is, and I’m going to mull it over a little bit. As a writer, as a thinker, there is something very nice and private about that. Then, the next step is in effect, connecting it with other things that you know, sort of sleep on it idea and there’s other things that you’re seeing. Then thirdly, it’s testing it a little bit, throwing it out there, talking to a few people about it probably to see how it gets received.

Kelly: Yeah. The way that I experimented with it too was I didn’t go out and teach a whole new class. I actually put my stress class on the back-burner for a couple of years. I started testing it out in other settings like in introduction to psychology where I always gave the lecture at Stanford’s Intro to Psych class. I always gave the health psyche lecture and part of that was supposed to be about how stress will kill you. I decided to change it to introduce some of this research about how to deal with test anxiety and social anxiety in a way that helps you thrive. It was like the first time students would leave this lecture looking happy rather than demoralized because I had met the reality of their lives which is that stressful. I gave them the tool to help them deal with it rather than just the message that says, “You’re stressed out. It’s final exam time. You’re not sure you belong at Stanford? Well, guess what, that stress is killing your brain cells. You might as well go get drunk”.

I didn’t say that but like that’s the message. I was experimenting in things like that and other groups that I work with. I was trying it in my yoga teacher trainings. I was trying it out in my compassion cultivation courses that I teach at Stanford. Every group I worked with, what’s it like when I ask people to basically surrender to the reality of stress and start to recognize that stress can be a catalyst for strengths that we all have.

Peter: You have this great term that you write about or at least I wrote in my notes here but I believe these are your words, “we get stressed because” versus “we get stressed so that”. That we get stressed because of this or because of that is a very negative thing but we get stressed so that we could perform more effectively. We get stressed so that we can move forward in a certain way. It’s a beautiful distinction that you make that feels really profound in terms of a mind shift.

Kelly: That is interesting, I never really thought about that. It’s true, one of the things that I try to focus people’s attention on is not the trigger but what your body and brain might be up to. One of the things people sometimes misunderstand particularly because my publisher chooses these provocative titles and that make me hold my head and be like, “Oh no! Why couldn’t we get a title that had something like compassion and courage in the… all the words that to me are like the heart of the book and instead we get this provocative, “Stress is good for you”, and “you get good at stress”.

People sometimes think but what I mean by that is like, so let’s make people suffer more, let’s be assholes, let’s be jerks at work, let’s abuse our children. We could have a whole podcast about all the things I’m not saying that people think I’m saying that make me cry, but that’s a different [inaudible 00:18:36].

The distinction that I try to make is your body and brain are trying to give you signals or give you energy or shift you into a state of mind and body that will help you respond. You have to really pay attention and get to know your stress response repertoire because we don’t have the same. Everyone thinks stress is fight of flight. Fight or flight is a percentage of the stress responses you have but you also have stress responses that are freeze, you have challenge responses, you have tend and befriend, you have these bigger than self-stress responses that help you connect, you could have a growth response to stress, these are all biological bases. They’re not identical, not all just adrenaline overload or death by cortisol, that like the things that we fear about stress.

If you start to really listen to stress, you’ll recognize that you’re having a stress response not just because somebody criticized you but so that you’ll be motivated to reflect on what just happened and learn from it so that you will be motivated to connect with someone who cares about you so that you can process this without feeling completely overwhelmed by the negative emotions that go along with all that. You’re body is doing that for you even though we don’t always love how it feels but it’s trying to prime us to be effective. If we think that stress is just a negative inner state we shouldn’t feel, we start to shut down the parts of the stress response that are trying to motivate us to act or reflect or connect with others.

Peter: It occurs to me too as you’re speaking that the whole idea of “we get stressed because of something” is all about the past whereas “we get stressed so that” is all about the future.

Kelly: It is. It’s right. I’ve never thought about this. What an interesting insight you’ve had. I’m going to start to use this language more intentionally. I love that you thought it was intentional. As you’re saying it, I had no idea what you’re talking about. I was like-

Peter: I wasn’t sure if it was your language or my language. I know I took the notes but-

Kelly: I don’t know, it’s really good language because when you focus on… what I often ask people to do is to think about why they care. That’s often the main mindset reason I ask people to start with why do you care and then what could this be for. Those are both forward leaning mindset as opposed to this, if you think that you just get stressed because something happened, it comes with it the assumption that your goal now should be to turn it off, like the stress is a reaction to something. It’s like a fever you want to reduce or the wound that you want to heal quickly as opposed to a stake that is actually, you need this stake in order to react or resolve.

Peter: It’s an illness versus a benefit as a tool.

Kelly: Yeah, you’re looking on this too.

Peter: Yeah.

Kelly: The other thing too about all this, the complexity, I’m in real life and in the book a million times in the book I’m like, readers you’re going to have to hold some opposites here because there are going to be things that seems to contradict each other that are both going to be true and that is the reality of the science, that that people who want a very unique story about stress are going to be very disappointed in the book as well as in the actual science, like the actual reality of stress. It’s so complex and it involves being able to accept that stress can make you sick and stress can make you stronger.

The good news is, we can play a role in that but the bad news is we also can’t completely control the effect of stress has on us. One of the reasons why we have such simplistic and negative opinions about stress is we desperately want to be able to control our lives and our health and our experiences. Even just to acknowledge that we don’t have full control is a big leap for people to make.

Peter: It seems like the belief is a step towards regaining some of that control, meaning if I believe certain things about stress then I can take the reins a little bit in my experience.

Kelly: I think it’s super important to not go off the deep end with the sense of being like, “and so, if you get stress-related migraines, you’re doing stress wrong”. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like the subtitle of my book. There’s this idea that if you’re suffering, it’s because you’re doing stress wrong, you’re bad at stress. That is really, that’s not… it’s almost like that’s a parallel track to the way that I think about this.

The reason that choosing your own stress mindset matters is because it allows you to play a role in how stress affects you and it allows you to transform stress into things that we value like growth and meaning and connection or positive action. That does not, it’s not a guarantee that you can control your experience so that you won’t suffer. Some of the people who have been most attracted to this work, I have to say, are people who also believe if think something you can make it true. All you have to do is just think, “I’m going to be president of the United States”, and if i think it hard enough, it’ll happen. Or if i think negative thought, I’ll give myself cancer, and if I think positive thoughts I’ll cure my cancer.

That actually, I do not view as being in the same world as what we’re talking about in part because stress actually is, it’s like the classic archetype of a mind/body response. It is the only physical response you have that is almost solely determined by what you’re perceiving and how you’re thinking. Of course, it’s going to be affected by how you think and what your perceptions are because that’s what stress is, that’s not what cancer is. Anyways, I always like I have to jump in. I’ve actually been asked that sometimes in interviews or how is this different in believing that you can just cure yourself of cancer by thinking good thoughts because cancer is not, your tumor is not a manifestation of a mind/body process in a way that stress is.

Peter: It reminds me that you’re very cutting edge in what you’re doing because of the worlds that you’re involved in. You talked a little bit about this beforehand but you have a big heart and you have a big mind and you’re involved in both of those worlds. The mind world doesn’t always appreciate the heart world and the heart world doesn’t always appreciate the mind world. Your credibility at Stanford is obviously really important. Your research and your beliefs and your commitments that go beyond that is also really important. I wonder, first of all, whether this is an issue for you and how you manage yourself in the context of walking the boundary between these two worlds that are often seen as very separate.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s a good question. I feel like there are a number of tensions that I experienced being both in the science world and in the world of service. It’s sort of the way that I think about the other work that I do. What i have come to, I mentioned this earlier that my main intention in life is to relieve suffering and help people thrive. At the end of the day, that’s what I care about and at the end of the day that’s what I choose. It just so happens that I believe science is a resource for that. It’s like my main epistemology but not my only one.

It’s easier to convince me through science than to through say rhetoric and argument. I’d like to see some data. The data I believe the most is actually based on my direct experience working with people, that’s data too. When I experienced the tension, so for example, one of the tensions I often experience in the scientific world is a complete and utter rejection of religion and world views that support people in dealing with suffering. Again and again in my experience, religion and faith play a major role in holding communities together and supporting people through difficult times and in all faiths and in all traditions.

The ridicule that that receives in a scientific world drives me crazy. I’ll give you an example. I did an NOR interview with a famous scientist. We were talking, we were at [inaudible 00:27:06] experts and people called in and then the host would toss callers to one of us. Only one of us got to respond to each caller and they would just pick. Someone called in who is recovering from alcoholism and was talking about how great AA had been for him and how important his belief in a higher power was and how that had really allowed him to make this incredibly difficult change. The other scientist’s response was, “well, I’m sorry but that’s wrong because there is no higher power so if you’ve gone better, that’s not what helped you”. It’s not a direct quote but that’s pretty close.

Of course I’m not allowed to respond and I’m like-

Peter: Cringing.

Kelly: That’s something, a really good example of this kind of tension I sometimes experience where if it comes down to what the intellect versus a direct connection where you’re seeing someone and you are in the presence of either suffering or hope and meaning, I’m just going to go with the latter. I’m going to go with the direct experience connection, the meaning, the hope, and not retreat into what sometimes feels like a behind the wall intellectual argument. I don’t always experience that type of tension but that when it comes down to it, I sort of, you know.

Peter: You err on the side of service.

Kelly: I err on the side of service and also listening. I believe people have a lot of wisdom about what they need and part of my job, I think it was more true in this book than in my previous books, one of my goals with the upside of stress was to go out and listen in a way that it would allow me to really convey how people had experienced the benefits of this science and this mindset. There are a lot in detailed stories that are not composite not like I smooched together a few examples so you have a really good example, super detailed, sometimes in the direct words of the people who I talk to. I feel like that also is something that is not always valued in academics or science, this kind of deep listening to people and valuing what they say and what their own insights and intuitions are.

Peter: The book that I’m working on right now is, the working title is “Emotional Courage”. If you’re willing to feel everything then you can do anything but ultimately we stop ourselves from doing things because we don’t want to feel stuff. I don’t have a hard conversation because I don’t want to feel something.

Kelly: That’s really good.

Peter: Thank you. It’s exciting and it’s fun and I’m fully, fully immersed in it right now.

Kelly: Wait, you’re not allowed to… wait, before you go on, I’m going to flip roles because I have to ask this. I have a belief, you know that saying “all research is you search” an blah, blah, blah… what is it that you most don’t want to feel?

Peter: So much. It’s everything from little things. It’s everything from little things like I don’t want to feel your rejection, or I don’t want to feel shame, or I don’t to feel abandoned, I don’t to feel like I’m alone, I don’t want to feel… I write my Harvard Business Review articles and I’ve been writing them a lot less recently because I really feel like I want to focus on this book and that just doesn’t give me time.

I spend 6 to 7 hours writing one blog post because that’s how I write them and that’s what it takes. I find myself not writing them and fearing that I will lose my audience, like no one will know who I am. The fear of, well how big is my ego that I need people to know who I am. There’s business reasons for it but there’s the personal stuff. I mean there’s so much of this that I feel requires courage. It requires courage to say, “You know what? For the next few months, maybe six months, maybe a year, maybe I won’t write an article for Harvard. Maybe that means that people won’t be following me and my mailing list will drop off” and yet what you’re saying which I’m really resonating with is, what helps to build that courage is the sense of, here’s something bigger than me that feels really important and that I care deeply about and that I’m willing to feel those things in order to pursue this other thing that feels like it’s something that’s more important than my little fears and my little ego or my big ego that feels threatened.

Kelly: You would ask about the courage it took to be like, “Oops! I was wrong about stress”, we’re talking about writing books, that there were a couple of things with this most recent book where I was really scared to write the book the way I wrote it and at the end of the day, I felt I had too. One of the things that, I had to think consciously about, I know the science really deep and part of employees wanted to write a book that was unassailable to somebody else who knows the research and to touch every nuance and all the negative studies I know that people who know the research are going to be thinking, “But what about that one classic study?”

I thought that what I know about the science of mindset interventions and I thought what do I care more about? Whether other people who know something about stress are going to be able to find things that I should have put in that I didn’t put in that would have more fully-painted the nuance, complexities, or stress or that I want to write a book that’s going to be an effective mindset intervention that is true but doesn’t say everything I know. It’s true and also biased in a way that is going to help people adopt a more balanced world view than what they currently have which is strongly negative.

It took a lot of courage because I knew that there would be some reviews and I knew that that some of my colleagues would be, you know what I mean?

Peter: For sure I know what you mean.

Kelly: But I’m proud that I did that because the emails that I’ve gotten from people who read this, they’re think like, what’s the point of this book? I was, I always think with every book, there’s one, some kind of reader. I’m thinking about, for this book, I was thinking about people who are in really difficult situations that matter to them. They’re caring for maybe a dying parent or they have a child with a disability or they’re involved in work that is incredibly difficult, a cop or a physician or a nurse or social worker, that people are, maybe they’re dealing with their own severe anxiety or depression.

People who are really struggling with and I wanted them to have a sense of more hope and meaning or strength as a result of it. I knew that the book that would do that was not the book that was going to be the, have the strongest scientific complexity and balance. In the emails that I’ve got in response to the book suggests that those people got it and to quote through a few cranky psychologists who are going to have to change the name of their business from ‘I get rid of your stress” to something else like “I help you transform stress”.

Peter: That’s beautiful and it’s true. I love what you’re saying about the decision you made about your book. I was struggling with writing this book and one of the things that I said to my wife Eleanor is, I want this book to really be from the heart. I don’t want this to just be witty. I don’t want it to just be pop. I really want it to be from the heart. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about, I don’t know that I’m going to really structure it this way but, I want this to be a letter to my kids, like emotional courage.

To me, I think it’s the key to unlock everything. She then asked me a very interesting question, she said, “How can you put yourself in that space because you can’t in the middle of your day when you’re doing a bunch of business, etc, you can’t just take an hour and write from the heart. It just doesn’t work that way. How could you do it?” I said, “You know, I think I need to write from 6 in the morning until 9 in the morning. I just need to write, I need to wake up, roll out of bed and start writing when I’m least protected and I’m tired and I’m not being strategic and I’m just feeling. I could meditate for a few minutes beforehand. Now I’ve re-structured my day so that I’m writing from 6 to 9 and everything else happens after that.

I’m fortunate that Eleanor’s taking the morning shift and taking care of the children for me so that I can actually do that.

Kelly: I think that’s a really important insight that you had. When I wrote the last book, one of the things I had to do was turn away from any media or entertainment that I felt was cynical because I felt that would the poison to my book. That to be aware of deeply cynical people can be, to write to a cynical audience would have poisoned my book and I had to, even though I know there are cynical readers, that’s not the reader I care about. I didn’t want to write a book that was like the super-defensive argument toward the skeptical or the cynical. I feel like that’s something that people should really think about what they expose themselves to and if there’s a particular, if they want to live a certain way, if there are choices that you can make that allow you to be that version of yourself instead of constantly be influenced by or defending against other. You said, you did it in the beginning of the day, but I think that people should make some serious choices about the whole day and how they spend their time.

Peter: I grew up in New York city and in a hyper intellectual culture with a lot of cynicism. Disbelief and that slightly tilted head, your eye is a little slanted a little bit and going like, “Really? So what makes you think that?” Or “what’s your support for that?”

Kelly: Well, that’s okay. That could be helpful.

Peter: It is at a certain stage.

Kelly: Yes.

Peter: But in the stage where you’re just starting, when you’re something’s being born, I’m not sure that it can withstand that kind of cynicism. I think at a certain point it needs to but at a certain point, it needs to be held like a child in a little bed.

Kelly: I agree. Often, if you’re working on something, you need to go for the people who have the hunger or the pain point that you’re writing to. Those are the people you should be talking to because the people who have the pain point receive it in a very different way than people who don’t have the pain point.

Peter: Right. I think that’s actually very profound. A friend of mine who is depressed, we’ve just been having some more meals than we normally have to just connect. I was sharing some stuff with him that he was saying, “You know, I believe all of it at this point. I don’t see how being cynical about much of this has helped me in any way. That doesn’t mean that we openly accept everything like “just think differently and you’ll cure cancer.” That’s not what he is saying but a sense of letting your defenses down and that happens for people in pain.

It’s actually why I also think the science basis is really important because people in pain can also be vulnerable. I think we have to take care, which I think you do very beautifully in your book, but we have to take care when we’re sharing information to people who are in more vulnerable places that we’re supporting what we’re saying. It’s why the science is important because they’re vulnerable and you need to recognize, we need to recognize that.

Kelly: One of the things I think is really important when I think about the role that any of us can play in helping others is how important it is to not view yourself as the savior or the sole answer. I always think of anything that I might have to offer, a class, a book or whatever, it’s meant to enter the stream of someone’s life and support them but not to play the dominant role that relationships or psychotherapy or coaching or religion or whatever they rely on, it would be… I think it wold be, it’s definitely a trap that people can fall into to think that they have the solution that ends people’s suffering as opposed to viewing yourself as you doing a book.

Peter: part of the conversation. Yeah, and being part of the conversation. Kelly, I don’t know if you still have time. I’m way over what I normally do for podcast but I’m having so much and there’s a couple of other questions I want to ask you.

Kelly: Yeah, let’s keep going.

Peter: You said that you chose to have your book not just be the unassailable scientific paper on stress but a book that changes people’s mindsets. You talked about this in the book also about how you changed your mindset. I’m curious as you wrote the book and you’re thinking of it as a tool for changing mindsets, how do you change your mindset and how did that translate in your book?

Kelly: This whole idea of how do you change your mindset, I draw on a couple of different bodies of research. One of it is actually something called transformative learning theory. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it but it’s for teachers who want to fundamentally change people’s understanding or framework that they use whether you’re teaching Physics or you’re teaching Philosophy or you’re teaching stress mindsets. That theory says that in order to change people’s minds, you have to make them uncomfortable through something that’s disorienting, has a little bit of discomfort or a little bit of like, “What?”, confusion. In that point, you have to quickly start supporting the process of self-reflection and often social interaction or social processing in a way that people feel safe to try new ideas, to be wrong, to start to practice new ways of thinking and being. That informed all of my teachings since I got started teaching at Stanford.

That’s that research but then there is this much more specific body of research that I write about in the book by people like Carol Dweck and Greg Walton, that if you want to help someone choose a mindset that’s going to be more useful for them, you introduce this new idea through a little bit of science or some other kind data point like how people read surveys of other people who are interviewed about their experiences. You ask them, does this feel true to you, tell me about some experiences you’ve had that are consistent with this idea. You actually ask people not to like pro and con it, 10 reasons this idea is wrong, 10 reasons this idea is right or let people defend either that they want. You actually ask people to choose to look through their own Rolodex, do people even know what a Rolodex is anymore?

Peter: I do.

Kelly: There’s a whole Rolodex of memories or scroll through your iPhone or whatever. They scroll through-

Peter: Your Instagram of memories.

Kelly: Look for experiences that is consistent with this idea. That’s the second part of the mindset intervention. The third part of my favorite mindset interventions and I’ve come now to believe this is the key. Now that you’ve been introduced to a new idea, you reflected on your own experiences that are consistent with it, you are told that you have an opportunity to help others by sharing this information with them and your own experiences. To give you an example of this, one the studies I write about in the book was led by Greg Walton informing freshmen at an ivy league school. Guess what? Most freshmen when they show up wonder if they belong. They think they might be frauds or impostors. They aren’t sure they fit in. Everyone feels that way and most people it’s just them.

They’re introduced to that, they read some survey data about how most people feel that way and how they don’t feel that way as they go forward, that it doesn’t last, it gets better. Then they’re asked to reflect on their own experience, if they ever had an experience like that, and then to make a video for next year’s freshmen trying to explain this idea to next year’s freshmen so that they understand that if they feel like they don’t belong or they’re worried about whether they’re an impostor, that everyone feels that way and that it’ll get better with time. That’s a classic example. There are other versions of that.

That’s the three-part mindset intervention. New idea, reflect on what true for you about it, your own experiences, and then think about that new idea, something you had to offer others who are struggling. That is basically how I frame the book and when I teach the course, that’s how I teach the course. Just here’s an idea, what do you think? Is it possible that people can experience growth from traumatic experiences? I’m teaching the course right now, that’s this week’s topic. Introduce some science around ti, fully acknowledge the fact that people also experience harm and suffering from trauma, it’s not all rosy but some of the science on post-traumatic growth, and then ask people how have you grown from adversity or trauma in your own life and everyone’s writing their growth narratives and everyone is sharing them other people in the class. I asked them to specifically think about their stories as an offering to other people who maybe will see their own experiences reflected in that growth narrative.

That’s an example of how it each. It’s how the book is set up. If anyone listening to this is interested in changing their mind about anything, you can setup your own mindset intervention which is really to adopt this bigger than self-mindset and think, “Who else needs to believe this? Who else needs to hear this message?” Maybe it’s comforting to me to think that people can change. That’s a mindset. There’s evidence on both sides but you could choose to believe that people can change. You could reflect perhaps on how you change or people in your life have changed in a positive way. Then you have to think who right now is wondering whether they can change? Who’s struggling to make a change that I know? I share some of that science with them or could I encourage them or tell them a story about change that’s going to help them through this difficult time? That’s a mindset intervention.

Peter: Can you use a mindset intervention for something? I’ll tell you what I’m actually thinking which is that I was having this conversation with my wife and she asked me this question, do you believe in God? I was sitting there, we’ve known each other 30 years and this is not the first time we’ve had this conversation and she’s a minister so we’ve talked about God a lot. I thought, “You know what? I can feel God, for myself, I feel God but I don’t know that I believe in God. I don’t know how to put those two things together but I know that I feel God. How do I… can I take a mindset process, a mindset changing process like that and put it towards something that ultimately, who knows? There’s no science that’s going to tell us that God exists or doesn’t exist.

I’m curious about a belief that you know could help you. You could look at a lot of research and you could say, “There’s a lot of research that points to the fact that if you do believe in a higher power, if you do believe that that could be really helpful in a lot of different dimensions. You could say, “Look, I want to believe that because I know it could be helpful. I even feel it at times but I don’t know that I believe it”. Can you change that kind of a mindset?

Kelly: That’s interesting. No one’s ever asked about that particular belief before. I will say that the types of beliefs that are most amenable to this process are ones fro which there is ample evidence on both sides and if you pay attention to life with a particular version, you will behave in ways that change the reality of your social world. Let me give an example of that.

This is like, when we look at interventions like what are the most important beliefs that shaped your health and your happiness? There are a few key beliefs and they seem to be these types of beliefs where it actually goes both ways. One is whether or not you believe other people are basically trustworthy. You could argue for both. I would actually argue most people are trustworthy in some context and not trustworthy in other context. I don’t think there’s yes or no to this one. But when you believe that most people are basically untrustworthy, you act in ways that make people less trustworthy-

Peter: Absolutely 100%.

Kelly: that trust you less, and it begins to change your social world. The same is true when you assume that most people are trustworthy or good. You behave in ways that actually elicits different things from your environment, it changes social relationships, it changes the resources that are available to you. All of the research on mindset interventions that have shown really interesting outcomes like improving people’s health or reducing depression or improving performance in work or school, they almost always are targeting these beliefs where there is a paradox at work and that your perception allows you to engage in ways that really do change your reality and not in a woo-woo way.

Peter: I actually think that’s very similar by the way. I think that idea of trustworthy, I could see a world in which I think people are untrustworthy and find a tremendous amount of evidence that would support that. The same thing, a tremendous amount… in fact, a quick story, my mother is a survivor of the holocaust. She’s French, and was in France during the holocaust. I grew up very much with that sense and mentality and a certain distrust. I was talking to her about it and I said, “Look, there’s two ways that you can look at this. One is you really can’t trust people because that’s true. On the other hand, you survived the holocaust because people hid you. You survived because people were willing to hide you and your family in a way that enabled you to survive”. What do you take out of that experience? Do you take out of that experience, a sense that you cannot trust anybody or that you really can trust because you survived. You could see evidence either way so that’s very similar to the dilemma I posed to you.

Kelly: What I said in that, I don’t know if you finished the book but in the very last part of the book, I always feel like the last sections of my books are always pleas to the reader, like PLEAS, I’m making a plea to the reader. My plea to the reader was, look guys, I am not making an intellectual argument that stress is good for you. I’m telling you that mindset is the stance you choose to take toward life knowing that the reality is both opposites are always possible and always at play. It’s a stance you’re choosing to take toward life. In a way, I actually feel like for mindsets to be most powerful, you need to know you’re taking a stance and you need to not be foolish enough to not see the complexity of the world.

Peter: I’m going to trust people, I’m going to make a decision that people are trustworthy.

Kelly: It’s not proven otherwise.

Peter: It’s easy to be proven otherwise so I think in order to help that stand-

Kelly: No but that’s the thing. It’s actually, if you believe that people are untrustworthy, it’s very easy to expect that-

Peter: Did I just expose my own view?

Kelly: Also, there are narcissists and sociopaths in the world.

Peter: Right.

Kelly: It turns out, so one of the little bits of science that I share in my science of compassion class is that, people who have the greatest compassion and empathy for others and the most trusting actually are the most skilled with detecting lies. People often believe that if you choose to trust others, you’re just an idiot and you will then be completely exploited. I actually think it’s because that people who choose to be trusting of others, they pay a lot of attention to people. They detect lies more than people who have a default assumption everyone’s lying when they don’t even know what to pay attention to. They’re not really paying attention. That’s sort of a side.

Peter: You know, Maria Konnikova, I don’t know if you know the name-

Kelly: Yes.

Peter: She wrote the book, “The Confidence Game”. She’s great, she’s been on this podcast. She said something to me that was very, very profound which was, “I don’t want to be the kind of person who can’t be conned. If you’re going to not be conned, you’re going to have so many defenses up, it’s so hard to not be conned. That if you’re going to not be conned, you have to have so many… I don’t want to be that person. I don’t know if I’ve been conned or not,” she said to me. “You don’t know if you’ve been conned or not. That’s the nature of a con but I would rather be conned and be that person than not be conned and be that person.” That’s sort of what you’re saying and still, there’s that moment that I guess it requires some courage to decide, I’m going to trust because I haven’t, with this particular person, it hasn’t been proven to me whether i can trust or not and I’m going to take the risk to trust.

Kelly: In some context, by the way, that won’t be most adaptive. That’s something else I write about in the book that has its own other level of complexity. In some environment, it makes a lot of sense to be afraid. In some environments, it makes a lot of sense to shut down your sensitivity to others”. There are contexts… there’s a recent study that came out, an economic study showing that people who are most trusting of others make more money unless you live in a nation that is characterized by extremely high levels of corruption and violence. You always have to be reality-based even though we’re talking about how mindsets can change your reality. I feel like this is one of those opposites we have to hold in that you’re listening to experience while also choosing to play a role in how you direct your energy and attention.

Peter: Which is a vote for meditation which says that your ability to be meta, your ability to step above what’s going on and look at it and go, “Can I be flexible to my situation? What is my situation really? Who are the people around me? What are the guards I might have up? What am I really facing? Given that, how do I proceed? Do I trust people, do I not trust people? Is this stress bad for me or is it good for me? Anything like that.

Kelly: Along the same lines, sometimes stress is a signal that you’re in a situation that is unsustainable and toxic. The stress itself is not necessarily toxic unless you don’t pay any attention to the signal. You’re like, “Oh! I’ll just stay in this job that’s killing my soul and I’ll focus on taking bubble baths so that I feel less stressed when I get home.” That could be a toxic recipe but the stress itself is often the discomfort that you feel. Sometimes that stress is trying to save your life, sometimes it’s trying to make you so uncomfortable that you’re willing to make a change in your environment and your reality. This comes back to that idea that we have to learn to trust stress a little bit more rather than try to instantly escape it.

Peter: Kelly, thank you. I’ve gone twice as long as I’ve ever gone for podcasts. It’s so enjoyable and so fun to talk to you. The book is “The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it.” Hopefully, from this conversation you’ve understood the complexity of that and that it’s not just one-sided and that might not be Kelly’s favorite subtitle for this book. I have to say it’s really a fantastic book and you can tell by my excitement in this conversation. Kelly, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership podcast.

Kelly: Thank you for a fun conversation. I’m looking forward to “An Emotional Courage”.

Peter: Thank you. If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive as well as access to my articles, videos and podcasts, visit Thank you to9 Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and to Bryan Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.


  1. BRIAN MAGRATH says:

    Preventatists disagree! Stress is NEVER repeat never “good for you”. The incoming distresses, (IDs), of life will become stress if they are undefended, and stress, whilst never causing disorders in the human body, sets up the conditions for cancer, depression, diabetes, cardiac problems etc etc etc…Please never believe that stress is a friend. Never is. Preventatism was developed to defend the individual against those IDs.

  2. Dale Halvorson says:


    Science is on McGonigal’s side. Read the research. Mindset is a bigger factor in every one of the outcomes you’ve mentioned. We grow stronger through stress. There is no shortcut and it definitely should not be avoided. If you want a stronger cardiovascular system you have to use it, and use it close to its limits.

    Post Traumatic Growth is a real thing. In fact more than a few believe it may be much more prevalent than PTSD.

    Check out Kelly’s sister Jane’s work to learn more about depression.

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