The Upside to Stress

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 8, 2014

The Stress Queen, as Martha Stewart once christened her, is having an incredibly volatile week, even by her standards.

Kathleen Hall, Ph.D., a former Wall Street trader turned stress-management and mindful-living maven, is in the editing stages of her latest book, Mindful Living Everyday (Oak Haven Press, 2014). She’s also juggling several other projects and running her companies amid a late-January Atlanta ice storm that paralyzes the city.

Among the thousands trapped by the storm, her assistant huddles in a car in a parking lot for 25 hours without food or adequate warm clothing (911 is overwhelmed and nonresponsive), her physician husband toils away at a local hospital that can’t get all the supplies it needs because of iced-over roads, and a physician daughter is waylaid by the storm on her way to the hospital to help care for the injured. To top it off, Hall falls on the ice while trying to render aid to her assistant, doing a number on her head and taking some skin off her face—which triggers post-traumatic stress syndrome symptoms from a 2009 accident.

Yet in our conversation, although she speaks quickly, her voice is calm and measured.

“It is insane here right now,” says the founder of The Stress Institute and the Mindful Living Network, and author of Alter Your Life: Overbooked? Overworked? Overwhelmed? (Oak Haven, 2005) and two other related books. “All you hear are emergency vehicles and helicopters, and nothing is moving.”

Hall manages days like this just as she has learned to handle any other.

“This is where we talk about perception of stress, and how it is managed,” she says. “Stress is information. It’s neutral, not bad or good. Too many people teach people to just get rid of it. There are so many layers of stress. I teach my people to be curious about it and not think about it as negative. Be curious. I put all of the things going on in a file in my mind, so I don’t get overwhelmed.”

She also has a more physical approach that mirrors her thought processes. “I keep a separate labeled bag in my office for each of my projects, my companies, the two books I’m working on, client projects. If someone calls about a topic, I reach for that bag and work from there. I’m never rifling through papers. I’m never stressed.”

Stressing the Essentials

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2013 “Stress in America” survey, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that stress-related ailments cost companies about $200 billion a year in increased absenteeism, tardiness and the loss of talented workers. Between 70 and 90 percent of employee hospital visits are linked to stress, and job tension is directly tied to a lack of productivity and loss of competitive edge, the institute reports.

Stress is a natural human reaction, however. When we perceive a threat, the nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. The heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens and senses become sharper. These physical changes increase strength and stamina, speed reaction time, and enhance focus—preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.

When she worked on Wall Street, Hall became fascinated with all the “guys buying Porsches, going through marriages, drinking themselves to death, plates of cocaine at night when we’d go out. I  saw what stress was doing to them.”

“Then I met Warren Buffett and some other illustrious people…. They were experiencing more stress than these jokers, but were disciplined, blissful, happy. [PBS journalist] Bill Moyers was in New York doing some work with healing and the mind at the time, and he said, ‘This is the future. The future of business, the future of medicine is finding out about this stress response and why some people are so affected by it and some aren’t.’”

Hall has spent years digging at the roots of stress, stress management and mindful living (defined as creating a clearer understanding of how thoughts and emotions can impact health, relationships and quality of life). She’s explored both the “spiritual model”—living with tribes of aboriginal people and studying with the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu—and “the medical model” as established by pioneers at Harvard, Duke and other universities.

Bottom line, stress can be a positive force, motivating a person to drop a golf shot at the lip of the cup or ace a job interview. But often—like when a freak ice storm turns the city of Atlanta upside down—it’s a negative force. Prolonged stress can become chronic unless steps are taken to eliminate the source or effectively manage it.

“Stress is beyond psychology or psychologists,” Hall says. “If we didn’t get ulcers or headaches or get a divorce or—I hate to say this—suffer, we wouldn’t change. It’s just the way humans are.”

Perception Is Critical

In June 2013, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., confessed to a TED Talk audience that she had changed her attitude toward stress. For the past decade she had spent “so much energy telling people stress is bad for your health, turning it into the enemy.” But today she says stress may be bad only if an individual perceives it to be, and she cites three studies backing this up (Keller, Litzelman, Wisk et al., 2012; Jamieson, Nock & Mendes, 2012; and Poulin, Brown, Dillard & Smith, 2013).

If someone views the body’s response to stress (faster breathing and heart rate) as being helpful in preparing for action or in coping with a stressor, that person is likely “to be less stressed- out, less anxious and more confident,” says McGonigal, a Stanford University lecturer and author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (Penguin, 2011).

But what McGonigal found most fascinating from the studies was how its participants’ physical stress responses changed. Instead of their blood vessels constricting when their heart rates went up (a cause of impaired cardiovascular health), as is the norm, the vessels of those who saw their body’s response as helpful stayed relaxed, instead reflecting a state that closely resembled joy and  courage.

“Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. This is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters. My goal as a health psychologist has changed; I no longer want to get rid of your stress—I want to make you better at stress.”

McGonigal urged her audience to view stress as a positive physiological mechanism that prepares your body to face a challenge, tackle an important problem, increase your resiliency or learn something new. Challenging yourself is laudable, but don’t be hypercritical, she says; failures are just failures if you see them as such, so learn from your mistakes and tell yourself they’ve made you better.

Another way to keep stress from hurting you is to recognize and change negative thinking—do not catastrophize a situation or jump to unfounded conclusions. And seek the support of family, friends and select colleagues to help you manage stress; McGonigal cited scientific research that concluded social support helps to release oxytocin, called the “cuddle hormone” because it promotes bonding between people. The hormone also has important physical characteristics, such as helping cells in the heart regenerate if they are damaged after stress.

Trauma Reconnects Life’s Work

If she ever had a doubt before, Hall’s 2009 brush with death and road to recovery sealed her belief in her life’s work. She was riding a career wave at the time, appearing regularly with Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Mehmet Oz, and about to launch a television network based on her Mindful Living philosophy. Coming from lunch with Steven Spielberg, she was crossing the street in Beverly Hills when a car going 60 mph hit her. She was resuscitated at Mount Sinai, but she had suffered a traumatic brain injury.

“It took me the first year just to be able to walk, think, regain my memory and everything else,” she says. “I put my companies on hold, like a sabbatical, and came back slowly. The books I’d written and what I’d taught before actually is what brought me back; they were like breadcrumbs that brought me back to myself.”

She still is working on the road back.

“I was hit so hard that I died instantly, meaning that I don’t have any memory of the accident, nothing,” Hall says. She still struggles with PTSD (one of her book projects is related to this subject) when “anything touches my head. Even getting in and out of a car can prompt hysterical crying, difficulty breathing—I’m shaking all over, and again into this really dark place. The good news is I know how to manage it.”

Hall acknowledges that she still encounters people within corporations who are initially skeptical about her stress-management philosophies and Mindful Living instruction.

“But we’ve got long-term studies that show that people who do mindfulness practices and live mindfully actually live longer, have better health outcomes, all kinds of stuff, less violence with kids,” she says. “I tell the corporate leaders that their work/life balance is bipolar, it’s dinosaur, it’s old thinking, and you can’t have a life and then have work, and then have work and then have life. If you’re mindful, it’s seamless—you’re mindful at home with your kids and your lover or your partner, and you’re mindful at work.” (She trademarked Mindful Living, and differentiates it from mindfulness, which she notes still has a Buddhist, almost spiritual connotation to it.)

“[Part of] Mindful Living is an action-reflection model,” Hall says. “It’s an ancient business model, spiritual model, [and taught by the] Wharton School of Business. They don’t call it that, but that’s what Mindful Living is, that you do an action then you come back and reflect on it mindfully. Being mindful is about waking up, about awareness, and the facts are that whether you’re a manager or a mother, people who go to the top of the heap usually are the most aware.”

Her clients also include aspiring entrepreneurs, such as one who “looks at people who are successful, who have a track record, with this sad debilitating longing of, I’m not like you. I could never be like that. I’m exactly the opposite. I look at them and go, ‘Are you kidding? Hey, let’s have a cup of coffee. I love you. Come on, let’s go.’ ”

Navigating Through Stress Soup

Hall administers the ACE exercise , which businesspeople find workable and helpful, she says.

What Hall still finds “absolutely incredible” is that 90 percent of the people who participate in the exercise postpone doing the things that will have a positive effect. “What they say is, ‘I’ve been good, worked 80 hours this week, so I get to play golf.’ It’s an amazing, punitive society that we live in, where you have to ‘be good’ or ‘finish your list’ before you practice joy or what you love.”

Hall can even put her recent fall on the ice, which triggered her post-traumatic stress, in a healthy perspective. “I  texted friends right away, and one brought me over soup,” she says. “When I needed my husband, he came home, and we just sat there and turned on some brainless television.

“It’s kind of like getting a flu virus, but what I’ve told my publisher is I’m glad it happened, because I was writing about my PTSD experience more academically in my books, and now since I experienced it again, I’m back with those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, NFL football players suffering from the effects of concussions, many of whom are young and trying to start their own companies.”

The linchpin to working through multiple layers of stress is to identify the stressor, within or without, and work it. The process creates new energy, Hall says, and allows us to say, “Wow, this is really cool. My life is changing because I’m not pushing these issues away; I’m trying to learn about it through people and through myself.”

Do you know the warning signs of overstress? Assess your stress savvy in a quiz on how your body handles stress.