Book Review: The Upside of Stress-Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

The Upside of Stress

By: Kelly McGonigal

If you’re curiosity is piqued and you think you’d like to really pause and dig into this really important concept- please read this book! It’s a way to walk yourself through a process of creating a new, more positive relationship with stress. Part One engages you with rethinking the narratives and stories you have about stress and countering it with some useful research that shows stress actually has some upsides. Part Two explains how to transform stress, including rethinking anxiety and building deeper connections with others in stressful times as a way to build resilience against stress. Throughout the book there are personal reflections to prompt your thinking and great stories that cause you to nod your head and say “Me, too!” Two thumbs up!

P.S. If you’re feeling too stressed to read another book, here’s Kelly’s  TED talk on the topic:

Moving From Theory To Action: On Stress

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To support you in changing your mindset on stress, here are some reflection questions:

1. To what extent do I find the stressful aspects of my life also meaningful?

2. When have I experienced that stress actually makes me more productive and engaged?

3. What is the language I use around stress and how might I make a small shift toward a more positive relationship with stress?

4. Since reaching out to others is one of the ways to reduce stress, who can I reach out to for support?

Mindset Shift: the Good News About Stress

stress help calendar

June is always a crazy period for me- end of school-year activities, cramming in work projects before summer vacations start (like this newsletter!), extra social events, tending to the garden, not to mention that I want to go outside and enjoy the sun that’s finally here. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day and I hear the conversations about how busy we all are, running from place to place, losing sleep, not being able to settle in and actually be present for any of these myriad of activities. It’s all so STREEESFUL! And we all know how terrible stress is for us… but is it really, and in what ways? I’ve been reflecting on the impact my relationship to stress has on me and those around me, and took a deep dive into some of the newest research on the topic showing that it might not be as bad as it seems.

A University of Wisconsin- Madison study asked 29,000 people to rate their stress level in the last year and how much they believed stressed influence their health. Then over the following eight years, they recorded the number of deaths by any of these subjects. What they found is that people who reported having high levels of stress and who believed stress had a large impact on their health had a 43 percent increased risk of death. Those who experienced a lot of stress but didn’t perceive its effects as negative were amongst the least likely to die in comparison to other participants in the study. Forty-three percent! Given that I don’t anticipate giving up my work, family and other commitments, it might be worth making this mindset shift.

Furthermore, a study by Roy Baumeister shows we believe the most stressful events are often the most meaningful. (Childbirth comes immediately to mind!) And when we work hard in our careers, give our all to our kids, and get engaged in our community, we may indeed, be stressed, but it is also be an indicator of a life of great meaning. I like that. I think going forward when people ask me how I’m doing, instead of saying “Wow- good, busy and stressful,” maybe I’ll try out instead, “I’m leading a life of great meaning!” I’ll let you know how people respond.

Finally, you can channel your stress into energy that increases your performance. When we see that stress is a natural part of life, we’re in a better mindset to find ways to deal with it, ask for help and see stressful events as challenges rather than something to be avoided. I often say to clients, anxiety is excitement without the breath. And that’s the exciting part, because we can become aware and can choose how we perceive the situation: problem or challenge? Danger or opportunity? Fear and anxiety, or excitement?

How you speak about something matters. I remember my daughter saying one time, “I’m completely overwhelmed and freaked out about my test tomorrow.” I responded to her by asking, “Are you completely overwhelmed, anxious or a bit nervous?” She responded by saying “a bit nervous” and her body visibly relaxed, shoulders lowered, and she exhaled. Studies show people who have some stress going into a test or a public speaking actually do better than those who don’t have a little adrenaline running through their body. I’m going to go back to my day and my To-Do list now, a little more grateful for the stress in my life.

Moving From Theory To Action: Unplugging

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To support you in practicing unplugging, here are some reflection questions:

The next time you take a quick scan of social media, emails, etc. ask yourself, “What did I learn and how did it make me feel?” It can be helpful to get some baseline data on the impact it’s having on your mood.

1.  When you begin to reach for your device, pause. As yourself, “What could be gained from checking right now? Will it support what I’m doing?” Practice delaying it- especially if you are with others or eating.

2. Take a look at your calendar and ask yourself, “Where in my day am I making meaningful connections with others? Are there better ways I’d like to spend my evenings rather than surfing social media?” Reflecting upon who and what is important to you and making a plan toward those connections is much more fulfilling.

3. “What boundaries do I want to put in place so that I have better balance with my technology use?” There are many ways to do this, including: take email off of your phone, set a time for when you power down each night, avoid sleeping with the phone in your room (buy an alarm clock if needed!), wait before getting on technology in the morning, take a technology-free day, try the three-day digital detox, turn off social media notifications, stop retweeting, reposting, liking, etc. set your email to batch and release throughout the day at periodic intervals. The list goes on! Good luck!

The Importance of Unplugging

Sunrise

I just got back from a ten-day vacation with my husband sailing and relaxing in Puerto Rico. For those of you who haven’t heard his stories, he spent several years working on boats in his 20s and just loves it. So this year we rented a boat and sailed around the islands with some friends. The sailing was great (though Jon and I both know I don’t share his love for the open sea- I tend toward sea sickness and would rather walk than sail from place to place if I could), but for me there was another aspect of the trip that really made an impact- I completely unplugged. No computer, no phone, nothing. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve unplugged longer than a weekend, and it was a great practice to observe myself “withdraw” from my devices and to give me and my brain a rest from the constant onslaught of information.

Social media appears to increase narcissism and depression among users, smartphones could be causing insomnia, depression and anxiety, and screens seem to be making our kids less empathetic. I have two daughters, aged 12 and 14 who are considered digital natives, and despite my best intentions on limiting screen time, I worry about the long-term impact on them, as well as society as a whole, as we enter this grand experiment with technology.

I can see how it impacts. “I have to be on or I’ll get behind”- says my elder daughter as she tries to keep up with Snapchat and Instagram, not even digesting the posts, but just “liking” everything that comes across her screen. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and the pressures of her online presence are felt acutely. This winter we saw an enormous and amazing ice castle completely made out of ice. I stopped dead in my tracks when my younger daughter, about to go down an ice slide, said to me with deep concern, “Mom, I don’t know what I should do- should I go down the slide taking a video, but then I have to be careful how I slide so the camera doesn’t shake and it won’t be as fun, but I’m also afraid that if I don’t film it, I won’t remember it.” – With much compassion, I invited her to really pay attention to her experience and make a mental photo of it in her mind. Ouch! What pressures. Here is a cool clip of what the impact of technology is on our brain.

I found an interesting research article in Fast Company where a hand-picked group of 35 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other influencers were invited on a trip to Morocco to study their behavior with and without technology. Five undercover neuroscientists observed the group. Here’s an excerpt of what they found after only three days:

Better Posture, Deeper Friendships
After three days without technology, people’s posture noticeably changed. They began to adapt to primarily looking forward into people’s eyes, rather than downward into their screens. People’s energy opened up and seemed more approachable. Better eye contact appeared to encourage people to connect with one another more deeply.

Improved Memory
Even after a few days without technology, people were more likely to remember random details about one another, such as the names of distant relatives mentioned in passing. The neuroscientists believe that this is because people were more present in conversation, so their brains were able to process and store new information more easily. These details are actually very important in the process of bonding and learning about other people.

More-Efficient Sleep
The guests on the trip said that they did not have to sleep as long, but felt even more rested and rejuvenated. The neuroscientists believe this is because the blue light from screens suppresses melatonin in the body, which makes us more alert as we are going to sleep. Other studies support these findings.

New Perspectives
One of the most powerful findings was that people tended to make significant changes to their lives when they were offline for a while. Some decided to make big changes in their career or relationships, while others decided to recommit to health and fitness. The lack of constant distraction appeared to free people’s minds to contemplate more important issues in their lives.

I noticed all of these things myself, in addition to some much needed quality time with my husband, uninterrupted time to just read, go for a walk or swim, or have a relaxing drink at sunset. Of course, all of these things are possible at home, too, but unplugging was a helpful boundary to take away the pressures of what I could or should be doing. I’m looking at ways I can bring more of that back home, and invite you, as well. See below for next steps.

Book Review: Leading and Managing in the Social Sector: Strategies for Advancing Human Dignity and Social Justice

Leading and Managing In The Social Sector

Editors: S. Aqeel Tirmizi and John D. Vogelsang

For the first time, I’m able to recommend a book that I participated in writing! While it’s hot off the shelves and I haven’t read all of it yet, (though I know that Chapter 12 on Women’s Leadership Development is very good), this book offers important developments in the field of leadership for the social sector in order to have more impact. The opening quotation of the book, by bell hooks (who doesn’t capitalize her name) expresses the intention of the book compellingly: “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” The book covers Leading Social Innovation, Engaging Meaningfully in the Complex Social Context, Fostering Organizational Resilience, Leading in Social Sector Organizations, and Measuring Success. I highly recommend it! (Please email me if you’d like me to send you just a copy of my chapter on Women’s Leadership Development Through Networks of Support).

Moving From Theory To Action: The Importance of Celebrating Progress

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To support you in practicing celebrating successes, here are some reflection questions:

 1. Looking back on my most recent accomplishments, are there any that I or my work team haven’t celebrated yet? Is it possible to do so now from the perspective of “Better late than never?”

2. To what extent do I have clear, measurable, meaningful goals at work? (Research shows that we need clear goals and they need to be personally meaningful to us).

3. If there are big goals, what are some milestones along that way that I can mark my progress? (The Power of Small Wins by Harvard Business Review, 2011,goes into this more)

4. How might I celebrate these successes and milestones? With whom?

5. What can I do today to set a celebration in motion? (Identify a few possible ways to celebrate? Send an email to someone to have a conversation about this? Set some possible dates?)

The Importance of Celebrating Progress

Marla and Kerry

Marla and Kerry

This month I’ve succeeded in an important goal and I want to invite you to celebrate with me. With my colleague, Marla Solomon, Director of Partnership Programs for Five Colleges, I am co-author of a chapter for the book, Managing in the Social Sector: Strategies for Advancing Human Dignity and Social Justice. The chapter shares the scholarship and research behind the Women’s Leadership Circle of Vermont model and the positive impact it is having on the women leaders who have participated. We have been researching the efficacy of the circles and analyzing since 2011 what makes them work so well. I also presented our findings at the Global Conference of the International Leadership Association this past fall, and it was a huge honor to contribute to the field of leadership on an international level. Marlboro College Center for New Leadership, my organizational partner in offering the WLC program around the state, hosted a book launch party for me in January, and I noticed how re-energized I am. It has me curious about the importance of celebration of milestones in one’s life.

I notice that as a person who works for herself, there aren’t any big company celebrations or regular work colleagues I see daily with whom I can share success. This book launch party was a reminder of how important it is to have people witness and celebrate achievements. For me, it was a chance to pause and reflect on how far I’ve come with the Women’s Leadership Circles program since the first circle in 2011. It helped change my mindset. I’ve never thought of myself as a researcher-type, yet here is my work in a graduate- level academic book. It has helped me to change how I see myself, and I now have a new touchstone for accomplishing something that I thought might not be possible for me. It felt good! My husband and daughters gave me flowers at the event, and it was great to have them recognize this achievement. (For all you armchair neuroscientists-that was the dopamine release). It fueled my energy. I feel recommitted to the importance and impact that the Women’s Leadership Circles are having on the state of Vermont, and I can feel myself wanting to double down and move to the next phase of work. I was also told it inspired them. Several people came up to me sharing how it got them energized and excited about going back to their circles. Celebrating success can reconnect us to purpose and meaning.

In my work as an executive coach, I frequently support clients in goal-setting. I always ask people, what they will do when they accomplish their goal? What are the milestones they want to mark along the way and how will they celebrate? I often receive the comment that “accomplishing the goal is reward enough.” But the research says differently. It really does matter for a number of reasons.

  1. It helps us self-reflect on where we have come from and where we are heading.
  2. It helps create a success mindset.
  3. It feels good.
  4. It energizes and builds motivation for future endeavors.
  5. It creates a positive environment that inspires others.

Taking the time to celebrate has been critically important to completing this cycle of work, from the inception of the idea to having the book chapter published. Off to have a glass of champagne now!

Book Review: Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Freedom from Fear” Speech (1990)

Aung San Suu Kyi

Having just returned from the B Corp* Champions Retreat in Philadelphia, I’m going to deviate from my typical book review format and instead offer a speech that was discussed at the Retreat. Each year the conference organizers select a speech designed to invite us to pause, deeply reflect and be inspired by courageous leaders in the world, and then discuss it in small groups. This year’s selection was

Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Freedom from Fear” Speech (1990)

Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a majority win in Myanmar’s first open elections in 25 years in 2015. The win came five years to the day since she was released from 15 years of house arrest. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for or her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.. Suu Kyi asks us to look at at least one of the root causes of exclusion – fear, and invites us to consider what is required of each of us to rise about our most base emotions to live into our highest aspirations. The text is a short three pages and offers a different cultural lens with which to look at the human condition. I believe her message, written over 25 years ago from another context, is very relevant to understanding our current US political arena.

*My business, Watershed Coaching, LLC is a certified B Corp– a Benefit corporation committed to business being a force for good.

Moving From Theory to Action: Curious vs. Convinced

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To support you in deepening your curiosity with those who hold different views from you, I offer some questions reprinted with permission by my friend and colleague, Howard Ross. These come from his company’s resource guide: Inclusive Responses in Times of Fear. See this and other resources on cookross.com.

 1. How do you feel about people who think differently than you about this?

2. What are you afraid of? What is more inspiring to you than fear?

3. How can you engage in these conversations authentically and whole-heartedly? What might get in the way?

4. What are you committed to? How do you see your role/contribution in any conversations or actions?

5. What is your desired outcome for these conversations?

water-shed (watr'shed') Noun: a critical point that marks a division or change of course; a turning point — © 2014 WatershedCoaching. All rights reserved.