The Top 3 Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the best ways to deal with stress? How can you prevent everyday stress from spiraling into anxiety and burnout?

Knowing how to cope with stress effectively is an important skill for a fast-paced modern life. If you’re unable to tame your stress, you’ll constantly be living in a fight-or-flight state, which is bad for your mental health. Being chronically stressed is also associated with developing life-threatening conditions.

With this in mind, here are three ways you can build resilience to buffer yourself against stress.

1. Connect With Others

The first way to deal with stress is to engage with others. McGonigal claims a threat response is more likely when you feel isolated in a stressful situation. To prime yourself for tend-and-befriend responses, consider the following strategies:

Choose to Help Others 

This can be something small, like listening to a problem or being present for somebody during a difficult time. Studies show that generosity satisfies our reward centers and helps us cope with our own stress better. In one study, participants felt less time-constrained at work when they used some of their time to help others. 

(Shortform note: Although helping others can help you cope with stress, there may be a limit to how much help you should give, whether at work or in your off time. One study found that people who helped others with favors like running errands or watching another person’s children for more than 80 hours per year were slightly less resilient to stress than those who helped a moderate amount. So, don’t feel bad if you’re not able to help others out all the time. A little bit of help every now and then is still good for those you’re helping and it can benefit your health.)

Focus on a Common Good 

When you focus on a goal that aligns with the common good of your family or community, you feel a part of something bigger than yourself. McGonigal claims that you’ll be just as motivated as if you were striving for your own gain, but your motivation will be less draining because it’s not selfish and isolating. Rather, contributing to a greater mission or community helps you build supportive relationships with people and leads to a greater sense of meaning and happiness. 

(Shortform note: Like McGonigal, the author of Meditations claims that acting for the common good connects you to something bigger than yourself—that is, all of humanity. According to the ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, serving others is essential to a good life because by serving others, you act according to reason. Reason is a natural, common law shared by all humans. This common law of reason unites us as common citizens. Because citizens of the same community should support each other, humans—united by our reason—should support each other.)

Normalize Stress 

To further connect with others, McGonigal recommends normalizing stress by increasing your awareness of other people’s struggles. Practice this by constantly recognizing that the people you’re interacting with have their own struggles. Next, realize there are many people in the world who feel just like you do. Embrace this invisible community.

Not only are there countless people who are likely struggling with a similar kind of stress as you at this very moment, but there are probably people who’ve faced situations similar to yours throughout history. In Discipline Equals Freedom, the author discusses a thought exercise that inspired him to gain confidence and persevere when he felt overwhelmed during war: He imagined soldiers throughout history who had gone through difficulties similar to what he was experiencing or worse. 
Adopting this method, consider historical examples that relate to the kind of stress you’re experiencing. For example, if you’re a new mother struggling to keep up with the exhausting demands of a child, imagine the trials that new mothers faced when traveling the Oregon Trail. This might inspire strength and help you feel less alone in your suffering.

2. Be More Open About Your Own Stress 

If you struggle with something that you wish people were more open about, initiate this change by personally discussing it more. For example, if you struggle with anxiety, admit when you’re feeling anxious to people you trust, or start a social media group that discusses anxiety. Not only will you help others by opening up about your struggles, but offering support will lead to reciprocation. 

(Shortform note: Counselors say that people hesitate to be open about their stress because they’re afraid that their symptoms aren’t common and that people will judge them if they share their experience. However, your response to stress is natural. By being open about it, you’ll likely receive support. If you don’t feel comfortable being open with the people around you, you can always talk to a counselor about your stress.)

3. Remember Your Values

According to McGonigal, one of the best ways to deal with stress is to keep your highest values present in your thoughts to help put your stress into context and transform it into something meaningful.

To do this, McGonigal recommends putting a reminder of your values on a bracelet or keychain, or writing about it. For example, if your highest value is your family, consider making a bracelet that lists your family’s names or putting a picture of them on the lock screen of your phone. (Shortform note: Psychologists suggest that orienting yourself with your values or your “reason why” can help you endure discomfort. To find an effective “why,” don’t base it on expectations, public approval, or guilt. Instead, choose something that feels truly meaningful to you.)

The Top 3 Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Upside of Stress summary:

  • Why stress is an ally that should be embraced
  • How stress can lead to enhanced health, greater success, and a more meaningful life
  • How to change your mindset about stress to receive its benefits

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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