Stress And Beliefs: Did Kelly McGonigal Get It All Wrong?

by Doc Orman, M.D.

There has been quite a stir in the stress and wellness communities ever since Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal recorded a 14:29 minute TED Talk in June of 2013.  This presentation was uploaded to YouTube in September, 2013 and it has been viewed nearly 5 million times in just the past seven months.

In this talk, McGonigal shares several unconventional conclusions.  First, she concludes that stress itself is not a bad thing, but rather having a strong belief that stress is bad for you can kill you, when stress without such a belief will not.

Then she goes on to talk about Oxytocin, one of many hormones released in higher amounts in our bodies when we are stressed.  She makes two claims about this hormone: 1) it causes us to seek social contact and social support; 2) it protects our hearts from cardiovascular damage from stress.  Her basic conclusion is that if you change your belief about stress being bad for you, and you use it as a signal to reach out and connect with others, you can escape the damage that stress can do to your body.

Let Me Count The Ways…

I can’t tell you exactly how many mistakes in logic and critical reasoning I detected in this 14:29 minute social propaganda speech.  It reminded me of a favorite blog post I published here one year ago (3/22/13) titled How Many Philosophical Mistakes Are There In The Book “Ten Philosophical Mistakes?

There are serious flaws in McGonigal’s taking a few isolated physiological observations and weaving them into a fairy tale about how stress is really our friend. It’s a classic case of someone with a pre-determined social agenda trying to make a scientific case for something that is mostly conjecture and wishful thinking.

So Close…But She Missed The Boat!

But those major flaws are not the main thing that caught my attention in this TED Talk and inspired me to write this post.  It was the very first part of her talk, when she reports on an eight-year study where people with high stress and a strong belief that stress is bad for them had a 43% higher chance of dying than those who did not share that belief.

All this tells me is that you can significantly increase your stress levels (unhealthy to begin with) by being convinced the high levels of stress will definitely damage you.  This additional level of fear just heightens your prior levels of “stress” which were already high in the first place.

No surprise here that this group would have higher death rates. 

To me, all this proves is that certain beliefs can create even more stress.  But where did the original stress come from in the first place?

Here’s where McGonigal really misses the boat…big time!  You see, a lot of that original stress came from a multitude of other beliefs people in the study had which were not consistent with reality.   Thus, changing your one belief about whether stress is bad for you or not (by the way, it is) would do nothing to lower your main stress load.  It might do a little to reduce any ADDED amount of stress you create from this one isolated belief, but it won’t do a thing to reduce your chronic levels of stress otherwise.

So McGonigal was right in that the central issue in human stress is our beliefs…but she only focused on just one of a thousand or more stress-generating beliefs…and she got that one wrong to boot.

Stress is not our friend.  And Oxytocin is not our savior.  But in fairy tales, they absolutely can take on these roles.

NOTE: If you haven’t checked out my new Stress Mastery Academy website, click here to take a tour.


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