Contributing Author: John Hollway, Senior Fellow (Positive Psychology Center) & Associate Dean and Executive Director (Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice)
The latest version of this article was written on November 2, 2020.
One night in late 2008, my son and I were watching TV, and one of those little news blurbs came on during a commercial. “Drought in Marin, news at 10.” I was getting a glass of water and didn’t pay much attention to it, but when I sat down next to my son, he looked a little ashen.
“Hey bud, you OK?”
He was not particularly OK. “Dad, do you even WATCH the news? There’s a drought in Marin. The economy is going terribly, thousands of people are losing their jobs.” He paused. “And then there’s the nuclear threat.”
Clearly, he needed the glass of water more than I did. I handed it to him and said, “Dude, you’re nine.”
Clearly, my son was more stressed-out than circumstances warranted. But I’ve thought of that conversation more and more in recent days. It feels a lot like now. Apparently we’re “rounding the curve” on this whole COVID-19 global pandemic, but brand-new lockdowns in Europe and 80,000 new cases in the US yesterday don’t feel like that and, either way, our kids are still learning in a virtual environment for the foreseeable future. Those of us who have jobs are fortunate to have them when so many others have lost theirs. And then there’s this election, which almost certainly will not be decided on November 3 but instead will last days, weeks, or perhaps even months longer than that, during which the only thing we know we can agree upon is that many of our friends and colleagues will be convinced that civilization has been saved, and the others will feel that it has been irretrievably damaged. It’s a difficult and stressful time, for everyone. And then there’s the nuclear threat.
I work as a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, and my colleagues have spent a great deal of time counseling people in all walks of life on how to optimize their responses to stress and their ability to bounce back from setbacks. Here’s what I tell my law students on how to optimize their stress responses:
1. Pause to consider the thing that’s stressing you out. Stress is our body’s biochemical reaction to a perceived threat in our environment. What used to be our physical reaction to a wolf in the forest — a near-panic compulsion to “fight or flight” — is now our response to not being able to concentrate on work because our kids are homeschooling, or to having to prepare for a difficult meeting at work, or to the need to handle something for an elderly parent. Stress releases a cascade of hormones that give us energy and alertness, while limiting our focus so that we can only focus on the stressor. When the stressor is simple — don’t get eaten by the wolf — that focus is useful. When the stressor is more complex — how should I answer an unexpected question during my big presentation or what question do I ask the surgeon? — that focus actually limits us. We lack the cognitive awareness needed to find the best answer because we’re in fight or flight mode. So, the first thing to do is pause. Breathe deeply for a few seconds, let those hormones pass through, regain your cognitive awareness, and then assess your stressor.
2. Identify whether the stressor is within your control. Consider the Serenity Prayer, a staple of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings since the 1950s: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Figuring out whether a particular stressor is within your ability to change is the first step to designing your response to it.
The Mayo Clinic has a nice framework for this, which it calls the “Four A’s:” Accept, Adapt, Alter Avoid. For stressors we can’t control, we’ll have to Accept and Adapt. For stressors we can control, we can come up with strategies to Alter or Avoid them. Stressed about Bob’s weekly staff meetings? That is somewhat within our control. Maybe we can convince Bob to Alter them, or we can Avoid them altogether.
But what if we can’t control the stressor? There’s only so much we can do to Alter the presidential election, for example — and goodness knows we can’t Avoid it. And there’s nothing we can do to Alter or Avoid a loved one’s serious illness. In those cases, we’re going to have to Accept it and then plan our Adaptive response.
3. Adopt a Positive Mindset toward stress and Reframe it as Opportunity. Research from Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigle and others indicates that the way we think about stress has a direct impact on the way our bodies react to stress. When we think that stress is soul-crushing and negative, our bodies — and in particular our cardiovascular systems — tighten up, leaving us prone to chronic high blood pressure and other negative cardiovascular consequences that could have significant long-term consequences. And, it’s harder to both assess and apply the framework above.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Stress doesn’t have to be a negative. In fact, if you think about it, you’ll find that everything that you are stressed about is something that you care about. Go ahead, try it. See if you can find something that stresses you out that you don’t care about. Window treatments don’t stress me out. Never have. Why? Because I could not care less about window treatments. Watching Philadelphia Eagles games stresses me out a lot — because (for reasons that aren’t entirely rational, I admit) I love the Philadelphia Eagles and want them to succeed.
McGonigle’s book, The Upside of Stress, makes a key observation here. If we only get stressed about things we care about, she says, then stress does not have to be a negative. Instead, we can choose to view stress as an opportunity to rise to the challenge and have a positive impact on something that matters to us. Viewed in this light, stress is beneficial. It is a message from our body telling us it’s time to focus on something that a) we find important and b) we can impact. When we view stress as an opportunity, McGonigle says, our body reacts differently. She found that the cardiovascular challenges our bodies experience under stress ease dramatically when we stop thinking of stress as crushing and start thinking of it as an opportunity for positive impact.
How do we adopt this positive stress mindset? How do we reframe our thinking so that we can optimize our response to stress? The good news, according to McGonigle’s Stanford colleague Alia Crum, is that we think it, and then it gets easier over time. We just have to remind ourselves that pressure is a privilege — the privilege of being able to rise to the occasion. Crum conducted a clinical trial in which she had people establish their stress mindset — positive, negative, or in the middle — with a brief questionnaire, and then asked them to watch three 15-minute videos that promoted either a positive or a negative stress mindset. The people that watched the positive stress mindset videos reported that their own stress mindsets got more positive. They also reported fewer health symptoms and improvements on a variety of work-based metrics. The people that watched the negative stress mindset videos saw their approach to stress get more negative and saw no improvements in health or work metrics.
Taken together, McGonigle and Crum’s work gives us a great and simple way to improve our stress response. When you remind yourself that stress is an opportunity to rise to the occasion, your body responds differently. You are better able to handle the challenge because your mind and your body are full participants and you’re not as limited by the stress hormone cascade. And this response is easier and easier to activate as you remind yourself to do it over time.
4. Find the positive, even for the worst things. Now you might be saying, “but John, what about the critical illness to my loved one? I can’t change it — how can I view that as a positive?” The first thing I’d say is that Accepting and Adapting can be really challenging. Life throws us all kinds of stuff we aren’t prepared for. Sometimes rising to the occasion means finding a light in some pretty dark places. My former University of Pennsylvania colleague Emile Bruneau showed this ability to rise to the occasion at the toughest time ever. A neuroscientist, Emile was diagnosed with an incurable type of brain cancer. In his 40s and with small children, he recognized the opportunity to rise to the occasion and have a positive impact on things he cared about. At a time when no one would have faulted him for falling into despair, Emile chose to reframe his nearing death as an opportunity — the opportunity to educate his children about death, and to help them prepare for the trauma of losing a parent in ways that would “make them stronger people.” You can hear it directly from him in this video, in which he says, “I have the opportunity to kind of shape this, and that’s amazing. It’s [an] emotional support structure that we have time to develop for our kids, and . . . it allows me to be even more intentional about it.”
It’s important to notice that Emile’s stress response included Accepting his own condition, which he couldn’t change, and Adapting to address another stressor — what his death would mean to his children. And by reframing the situation to focus on the stressor he could control, he also optimized his response to the stressor he couldn’t control. I’m in awe of his grace and determined to remember this essential wisdom.
If stress is something that happens whenever something we care about is at stake, then we will have stress as long as there are things we care about in life. But that’s a good thing — imagine how dreary life would be without things we care about! And if stress is going to be with us all the time, we should figure out how to optimize our response to it. Analyze your stressor and figure out which of the Four A’s is your best approach. Remind yourself over and over again that stress is an opportunity to rise to the occasion and have a positive impact on something that matters to you, and then reframe the challenge so you can best Accept, Adapt, Alter, or Avoid the stressor going forward. If nothing else, you’ll set a great example for your friends and loved ones on how to rise above our challenges — and that in itself is a huge victory.
John Hollway is Senior Fellow at the Positive Psychology Center and Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.