by Mina Simhai

If you have butterflies in your stomach, invite them into your heart.Cooper Edens

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal uses this quote at the beginning of her latest book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. We feel the butterflies when we’re excited about a big date on Friday. Before we give a presentation. When we’re anxious about a difficult conversation that’s looming. When we’re on the cusp of change. When we’re about to take center stage and demonstrate to the world our prowess, or lack thereof.

Many of us have decided that the butterflies are no fun at all. Rather than inviting them into our hearts, letting them grow bigger and take over our bodies, we shove them deep down, so they can’t fly out and wreak havoc.

So, how do we invite them into our hearts instead? And why should we? McGonigal deftly answers these questions and more in her fascinating new book, which grew out of her wildly popular TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”

Why We Should Invite the Butterflies: The Benefits of Embracing Stress
Shockingly, it turns out that stress is harmful to our health only if we think it is harmful to our health. Yes, you read that right. McGonigal describes a study showing that people with high stress levels who did not believe stress was harmful were less likely to die than people with high stress levels who did believe stress was harmful—and also less likely than those who had low stress levels. By inviting the butterflies into our hearts, we befriend our stress response; it’s not so scary anymore. Compassionately, we acknowledge the physical sensations in our body, without giving them the power to control us or determine our health.

Don’t Squelch the Butterflies: The Pitfalls of Trying to Avoid Stress
According to McGonigal, research shows that “trying to avoid stress leads to a significantly reduced sense of well-being, life satisfaction, and happiness. Avoiding stress can also be isolating.” Students who tried to avoid stress during exam time were more likely to report declines in concentration, physical energy, and self-control. Another study she cites showed that adults who tried to avoid stress were more likely to become depressed, get fired, or get divorced over the next decade, because they relied on harmful coping strategies. Hmm, sounds like the butterflies aren’t all that bad—but running from them is.

Pursing meaningful goals is stressful. Facing conflict head-on is stressful. Throwing your backpack over the wall is stressful. In other words, when we try to avoid stress, we avoid activities that give our lives meaning. Rather than a bright, intricate tapestry, our lives become a dull, white canvas. Maybe it’s not stressful, but it isn’t vibrant or inspired, either. By trying to avoid stress, we also avoid living up to our potential.

How to Invite The Butterflies: Three Steps Toward a “Stress is Enhancing” Mindset
McGonigal offers a prescription for shifting our stress mindset from “stress is harmful” to “stress is enhancing.”

  • 1. Acknowledge stress.
  • 2. Welcome stress.
  • 3. Use the energy stress gives you.

Acknowledging stress means noticing the way it feels in our bodies. How does stress affect us? Next, we welcome stress when we notice that it comes up when something is important to us. It’s a sign that we want to engage. Finally, we can use our racing hearts and sweaty palms to propel us forward. What are some steps we can take, right now, that reflect our goals and values? When we use our heightened energy to pursue those steps (rather than squandering it on trying to manage our stress), we charge ahead, making progress and moving our important projects forward.

Three weeks after employees at a Fortune 500 company received training on this stress mindset intervention, they reported better physical health and less depression and anxiety. “At work, they felt more focused, creative, and engaged,” writes McGonigal. And employees with the biggest changes in their mindset enjoyed the biggest improvement. Six weeks after the training, the benefits persisted.

Me and My Butterflies
In October, I was giving a lecture at George Washington University on positive psychology and stress management. (Luckily, I had already started reading this book.) I had butterflies galore. So what did I do? I acknowledged how excited I was to have this opportunity to speak about something I’m passionate about. I recognized that it was important to me and I didn’t want to mess it up. I put the energy into my talk—speaking with enthusiasm, striving to connect with my audience, and letting them see my passion. I also reached out beforehand to a wise friend who I knew had thrived in similar situations. Instead of getting stuck in a fight-or-flight response to stress, I adopted a “tend-and-befriend” response that, according to McGonigal (and supported by my own anecdotal evidence), makes us social and brave.

The next time you feel your heart racing and your palms sweating, what choice will you make? Let’s experiment together with embracing stress.

To continue the conversation, please join me for the next WBI Book Group discussion on Tuesday, February 2, at 7:30 pm EST.

Dial in: 323-476-3997
Conference ID: 218555#

Mina Simhai earned her Certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute, and served as a teaching assistant for CiPP4. She is also a recovering lawyer, yoga teacher and mother. Her latest project is bringing the tools of positive psychology to lawyers and others in the DC area and across the country. Her top strengths are judgment, love of learning, curiosity, love, and appreciation of beauty. Mina is an avid reader and looks forward to launching the WBI Book Club with you.