Happily Stressed Out in 2016

2016 has the potential to be an absolute game changer year for all of us in one important area our lives – stress.

Show me a person in the legal industry who does not experience stress and I will show you a retired person. (Although in all likelihood they are probably still stressed!)

I used to think that reducing stress was a vitally important goal. Now I know there is something else we need to do with it – embrace it.

Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk and the research detailed in her book The Upside Of Stress: Why Stress Is Good For You, And How To Get Good At It provides definitive proof that stress can be good for us. That our beliefs about stress have a direct impact on how we experience stress in our bodies. And that you can quite simply change how you think about stress in order to reap the positive benefits it can bring.

Sounds like a fairy tale? I speed read her book in January in one sitting and know that even the most sceptical reader will find her arguments well set out, backed by research, and solid.

McGonigal opens up her book The Upside Of Stress with this question:

If you had to sum up what you think of stress, which statement would be more accurate?

(A) Stress is harmful and must be avoided, reduced, and managed.


(B) Stress is helpful, and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced

Which would you choose?

I am on record through my numerous articles and presentations on the subject as falling into the (A) category. Stress is not good. It causes health problems, and isn’t good for our professional performance.

And I realise now that I have been wrong.

McGonigal, a professor at Stanford University, and a health psychologist with a background in medicine and psychology, says that for most of her career she believed that stress was bad too, until she dug into the research.

What she discovered is that much of the early work on the impact of stress on human beings was flawed. To summarise a considerable body of research into one sentence: the stress experienced by rats systematically tortured in a laboratory setting for days, weeks, months, and maybe even years, does not directly correlate to the impact of stress on human beings. Go figure.

It turns out that our bodies and brains are much more complex than was believed and we have a repertoire of stress responses each with its own biological profile.

McGonical discovered that there are multiple ways for stress to be experienced in the human body. The one we are all familiar with is fight/flight stress. We also have available to us a challenge stress response that “increases self-confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from experience;” and what is known as a tend and befriend response that “increases courage, motivates caregiving, and strengthens your social relationships.” (Upside of Stress, p.49)

Some of the positive benefits of stress include:

  • Greater ability to focus attention
  • Heightened senses
  • Increased motivation
  • Greater energy
  • Strengthened social instincts and encourages social connection
  • Reduced fear and increased courage
  • Helps the brain learn and grow

Stress it turns out is a valuable asset to us in the pursuit of leading challenging and meaningful lives when we learn how to harness its benefits.

I recommend this book as a vital resource for turning the negative stress you may be experiencing into something beneficial. McGonical holds nothing back. The book is at once a highly-readable (watch for her Hunger Games reference) analysis and debunking of past stress research, a presentation of her new theory for stress backed by research, stories about how people have applied this research in their own lives, and a self-coaching framework to follow so that you can begin to experience the positive benefits of stress in your day-to day life.

This is my number one book recommendation for everyone in the legal profession this year. (Supplanting my earlier favourite – The Power of A Positive No by William Ury.)


  1. To embrace stress would be a luxury for many. There are those people who thrive on stress and the accompanying adrenaline rush; however, there are those who need extra help managing and harnessing stress before it morphs into distress.

    “Eustress is the good stress that motivates you to continue working. Stress can be a motivater and provide incentive to get the job done. This “good stress” is what eustress can be identified as and some people enjoy it. Everyone needs a little bit of stress in their life in order to continue to be happy, motivated, challenged and productive. It is when this stress is no longer tolerable and/or manageable that distress comes in.” – Brock University