How Stress Can Make You Resilient: An Interview with Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

How Stress Can Make You Resilient: An Interview with Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

What follows is a transcript for the podcast The Science of Resilience - Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. - Mind Body

Today, Kelly McGonigal joins us. She is a health psychologist who specializes in understanding the mind, body connection and lectures at Stanford university. She is the best-selling author of several books, including The Willpower instinct, The Upside of Stress and her latest book, The Joy of Movement. She's a pleasure to talk to and I know you are going to learn so much about how to apply powerful antidotes to the epidemics of our time, depression, anxiety and loneliness. She will explain physiological responses in stressful situations and how you can actually benefit from stress in your life. Before you read on, make sure you go to Collective Insights wherever you listen to podcasts and leave us a five star review. This helps us so much to reach more people and empower them with the info contained in our episodes. Let's go for it and jump right in.

Topics within the interview include the following:

  1. What are the Benefits of Stress?
  2. The Science of Oxytocin: A Stress Hormone
  3. Healing Early Childhood Trauma
  4. The Definition of Resilience
  5. What Can We Do to Build Resilience During Stressful Situations?
  6. How Does Exercise Impact Stress?
  7. When Does Exercise Become Too Much Stress From Movement?
  8. About Kelly McGonigal's Books
  9. Life Values Based on Fulfillment Vs. Finance

What are the Benefits of Stress?

Heather Sandison, ND:  Welcome to Collective Insights. I'm your host today, Dr. Heather Sandison and I'm so pleased to be joined today by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford university who has exciting new insights on the role of stress in our health. Thanks for joining us today, Kelly.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Thank you so much for having me here.

Heather Sandison, ND: So let's get straight into it. You have described in your Ted talk that stress might not always be something that we need to perceive as bad. Is that always the case?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yeah. So stress is so much more complex than I think many of us appreciate. Let me start by defining stress. So from a scientific point of view, stress is what happens in your body and in your brain when something that you care about is at stake. So your body and your brain, they have a whole repertoire of responses to help you marshal your resources, to deal with a moment that matters. That's what stress is. And I really think it's important to start with that definition because sometimes we define stress as everything bad we don't want to deal with, all the chaos in our lives, the uncertainty, the crises, the conflict, that it's the suffering that's outside of us. And of course, if you define stress in that way, it makes total sense that we would have a kind of avoidance response to it that nobody wants to suffer more.

But when you understand that stress actually is your body and your brain's attempt to help you cope with life, with life as it is, to meet the present moment, to deal with reality and to find ways to not only survive, but also thrive. Then I think we can start to understand why it is the case that stress has many benefits, that stress is more than fight or flight, which is just one of those stress instincts we have and why we could even go so far as to make an argument that even if you were to talk about stress in terms of the stuff, the content of it, even then when we look at the roles and relationships in our lives that matter most to us, our most important goals, our dreams and our aspirations, it makes sense that stress is part of what allows us to experience meaning, to make a difference in the world, to make progress on our goals.

And so what I'm advocate waiting for is like a really realistic ability to engage with life as it is by taking advantage of all the different ways that our body and brain, that they can help us rise to a challenge, how our body and brain can nudge us to connect with others so we don't have to handle difficult situations on our own. Even the way that our brains will get stuck on something stressful to try to figure it out either as a way to learn from it or as a way to make meaning out of it, even if the experience itself, there's nothing good about it, that we humans have this amazing capacity to make meaning even out of undescribable suffering. So that's what I'm talking about when I say that stress is not all bad and that's very different than how I was taught to view stress.

So I'm trained as a psychologist with a specialization in medicine. And in both of those fields, I was taught to view stress as a toxic response to life that makes you the worst version of yourself. So hostile, aggressive or terrified, or frozen with fear, and that also is always toxic to your health, that it will destroy your immune system. It'll kill your brain cells, it'll increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. That I've been taught that very narrow view of stress that really was based not on a deep understanding of the human capacity to cope with life, but really based on animal studies, narrow definitions of stress, the desire to put stress into this tiny box of like the least effective way of coping with life in situations that where it's impossible to experience connection or meaning or make choices that are consistent with your values.

So I'm just trying to open that box back up and take a really clear eyed view so that ... And let me really explain like point of this, which is that when you are told that stress is always harmful and you experience stress, the first thing that tends to happen is you believe you are inadequate to your life. I mean, look at the time we're living in right now. Before this year, so many people had been sold this idea that if you just get life right, if you're smart enough, if you sleep enough, if you eat the right things, if you whatever, that you could have a stress free version of your life. I mean, how many products are sold under the premise of stress-free in 30 days or something like that. And so if you experienced stress in your parenting, you think I must be like, I must not be cut out to be a parent.

You experience stress at work and you think like, I must not be up to this or I have to find a different job, or you experienced stress related to your health and you think, I'm feeling stressed and anxious and worried and overwhelmed, this must mean I can't handle it. I don't even know if I can go into chemo or take that next step, have that surgery. It's all too much, because there should be a version of my life where all of this is happening and I'm not stressed. And that sort of misunderstanding, that lack of self-compassion, that belief that there's a version of your life available to you that is free from stress leads people to become more overwhelmed, less likely to be open about their struggles and get the help that they need. It makes them feel less empowered and we can get into some of the physiology of this.

We also now know it amplifies all of the negative physiological effects of stress. So the more you believe you shouldn't be stressed, the more likely you actually are to have a physiological stress response that is less healthy than other stress responses that your body could produce. So I know that was a lot, but I really, I appreciate that you let me put that framework up because it's such a complicated topic and I want to present in a way that helps people open their minds a little bit. If like me, they had been absolutely told for years and years and decades that stress is always bad and the only way to be happy and healthy is to get rid of stress. 

The Science of Oxytocin: A Stress Hormone

Heather Sandison, ND: The body is this complex system, right? And I so appreciate that your framework is taking a more comprehensive look at it. It's not a black and white it's good or bad, but that there's this complex response when there is stress and it can be good or bad, net good or bad depending on some of our perceptions about it. So one of the things that you mentioned is oxytocin as a stress hormone. I have always thought of that as the cuddle hormone, the love hormone, and you talk about it as a stress hormone. I do want to get into the physiology and that I think is one of the most intriguing pieces of what you shared.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yes. So one of the things that ... so let's start with what most people have heard about stress. I think if you would ask people, what are the stress hormones? My guess is you're going to get to adrenaline, which we know gives you energy in moments of stress. But also over time, chronically can leave you feeling [inaudible 00:08:49] and or too charged up, but short-term adrenaline gives you energy. And cortisol, which basically helps your brain and body use that energy and in theory helps you reset to a more neutral state when the stress is over, also has some complex effects that so cortisol has a really bad rep that it doesn't quite deserve. But anyways, so that most people say, "Well, those are your stress hormones." And yet what we know is that actually in moments of stress, depending on your perceptions of the situation and the resources that are available to you, you will produce higher levels of all sorts of brain chemicals and hormones.

So oxytocin is one of them and we'll talk about that, but let me just name a couple of others that hopefully we can come back to. So for example, endorphins and endocannabinoids, which are brain chemicals that reduce pain, increase energy, boost mood, make it easier to connect with others. They can also be stress hormones. Neuro steroids, like DHEA, neuropeptide Y which is an anti-anxiety in the short term. So there's lots of things that your body and brain are producing during stress, some of which have fascinating effects on your ability to cope in a crisis, rise to the challenge, learn from the experience. But oxytocin is a great one to talk about. It's one of my favorites because it actually is a hormone that has such a great reputation as you mentioned that people are used to thinking of oxytocin as a almost like an anti-stress hormone, right?

So people have been told if you're stressed out and you want to feel better, hug someone or gaze into your dog's eyes, because when you stare at your dog and your dog stares back lovingly, it increases oxytocin for both of you, which is true by the way. And that that'll make you feel better and it will reduce stress, but here's what we actually know. So one of the stress responses that your body and brain can marshal for you sometimes called a tend and befriend response. I have taken to calling it a bigger than self response or a social response. And this is a stress response that biologically primes you to do two things, reach out to others for help and reach out to help others and oxytocin increases your willingness to do both. It gives you the courage to ask for help, to ask for a hug, to let people know that you're struggling, but oxytocin also gives you courage to help others and it increases the warm glow that you get from being able to help others.

So oxytocin, it's almost like a chemical of courage, of social courage and that's part of this social stress response. And there's all sorts of other wonderful things about oxytocin, which is that it decreases fear and anxiety. It tamps down like the anxiety circuit of your brain so that you feel less hopeless, less paralyzed. It increases activation in the hope circuit of your brain, which makes you more likely to believe that there is a solution or that positive change is possible. Oxytocin also is great for your heart. It's great for helping your heart regenerate and repair. It's anti-inflammatory, it's antioxidant, it's all this great stuff for your cardiovascular and immune system.

And so then how do you get this? How do you get a stress response where instead of your default response being, I hate the world, I hate everyone, leave me alone, which by the way is like that's one of my default, the leave me alone part is one of my default stress responses. So this is where mindset comes in. Your body and brain are always paying attention to what your resources are and paying attention to your beliefs about yourself in the world. So it decides how to respond to stress based on basically your understanding of what your strengths are, what your resources are, whether you can trust other people, what your options are, where you have control and where you don't have control. And that determines whether you have a fight response or a flight response or freeze response or social stress response or a challenge response and there's lots of responses.

So to have the social stress response, some part of you has to recognize that what you're feeling is bigger than yourself, and it's not a DIY challenge. This is not a stressful situation in which you are alone in any sort of definition of that word alone. And as soon as you recognize, there are other people who are in it with you, there are people who've been through it before and have guidance to share. There are people who care about you and want to help you through it. There are people who are in the same situation and worse off than you, and actually could use some of your insights and your strength. When you recognize any of those things, your brain is like, great. Let's not be alone for this because it's not a DIY stress. And then it increases levels of oxytocin specifically to amp up those social instincts we have to reach out to others and it at the same time emboldens us. It gives us that courage and that hope that we need precisely when the stress is not a do it yourself challenge.

So to give you like one of my favorite scientific tidbits about, well, who has a social stress response. Often our early experiences with stress can shape our instincts, oUr biological instincts. And I found a study that looked at the oxytocin release to typical stress based on whether or not you had gone through cancer treatment as a child. What they found is that adults who had gone through cancer treatment as a child had a really strong, robust oxytocin response to stress. And my interpretation of that study is that can you imagine a situation growing up where you are more forced to recognize that difficult things are not to do it yourself challenge where you find out that people care about you, you are forced to accept help from both experts and maybe other people who've been through it, Other people who've had cancer where you learn to draw on your own strengths and your community.

And something like that is such a great example of you learn early on how to have that bigger than self response, because you understand that so much of the stress we face in our lives, you can't do it on your own. And in contrast, adults who had really negative experiences growing up in relationship to caregiving and trust, would have suppressed oxytocin responses to stress as an adult. If what you learn is you live in a world where you can't trust other people, and if you express pain or needs, the people in your life who are supposed to care for you won't. And so that's when you actually see a predisposition towards something more like a fight or flight response. And even then, even though that sounds negative, you can marvel at how amazing our brains and our bodies are at learning from our life experiences. And what's so wonderful about that is, again, it points to why mindset is so powerful.

You can't always go back and change your early life experiences. But if you understand that for example, I'm someone who developed a not so helpful stress tendency to freeze under stress and retreat or hide to try to not let other people know that there's anything wrong going on. So I had like a hide default. And when I realized that, it's not like you have to go to therapy for 40 years to unpack it. You can simply start to deal with reality as it is now and test it out. So what happens if in my current environment, I test that what happens if I tell my sister that I'm dealing with a health problem that I otherwise would have hidden from her following long-standing family patterns of not telling other people about your problems and then I get support and then it feels good.

And then I feel more confident and hopeful walking in to the doctor to get a scan, which is this is a totally true story that I'm sharing from actually that happened six or seven years ago when I was writing my book about stress and forcing myself to apply everything that I was learning. So when you understand that mindset can give you access to coping responses that are really skillful and can be healthy, then you just get the fun of experimenting with different mindsets.

Healing Early Childhood Trauma

Heather Sandison, ND: I'm really grateful that you brought up this idea of early childhood traumas, because what I've noticed clinically and I'll say personally, I feel so fortunate that I did not ... I had a very idyllic childhood. And I think maybe because of that bias, I have been sort of surprised to see in my clinical practice that the people who show up with these long-term chronic, complex illnesses often say yes to the answer, yes about questions regarding early childhood trauma, whether it was violence in the home, neglect, sexual abuse, all kinds of things. And it seems as if it's harder for them to get well. And that was a big piece of what I wanted to ask you today is is that insurmountable or is there a solution there? What can help them get better faster?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: So let me share with you, I asked a similar question to researchers who study this. And the main takeaway that they all shared with me is the most important thing to understand is that no matter what you have gone through, it is not the case that you have been broken and destroyed by your experiences and here's why. Well, so a couple of things I want to say, and we should also talk about why it is that early life experiences can increase the risk of illnesses. It is related to stress, but it's not insurmountable. It's like, so one of the things that's really important to do whether you are a healthcare provider or a psychologist or a human being like with you with yourself, is to be able to have the compassion to hold a lot of the different possibilities here.

So to be able to acknowledge yeah, if you had a traumatic childhood, it changes your physiology and your brain in ways that can increase your risk of a lot of things that you don't want, depression, autoimmune disorders, that sort of thing. So that's true and we need to acknowledge that because there's real suffering there. And at the same time, the very reason that you have that increased risk is that we are shaped by our experiences and that plasticity does not stop when you age out of childhood.

So the reason that early life experiences increase risk is it's a heightened period of plasticity where your nervous system, even at the level of gene expression, your whole physiology is trying to figure out what kind of world do I live in. And I mean, I don't know how to express this at the finest biochemical level, but somehow if your perception is that the world is not a safe place, your genes understand that. At like the deepest biochemical level, you will see changes in gene expression, changes in brain structure and function, changes in baseline hormonal responses to stress that reflect what you have learned about life. That is not a system that's broken. That is an intelligent system that is trying to take care of you.

And the side effect of that is often what if you learn that the world is not necessarily a safe place, what your body, your brain, your genes are priming you for is self-defense that can increase systemic inflammation, for example, which is linked to all those things I mentioned like depression or immune problems or heart disease and things like that, chronic pain. So it is a learning, a compassionate attempt to take care of you that your body and brain have orchestrated. And it's so important to understand that because, so my first book was about chronic pain. And one things I know is that people with chronic pain and illness and mental health problems all often will feel like their body betrayed them or their brain betrayed them. People with PTSD often feel that way too. It's like, why have you turned on me?

And to understand, okay, your body and brain didn't turn on you, they're trying to take care of you and it has these side effects that are not particularly wonderful to live with. So we know that the risk is there because of your ability to learn from experience. That does not go away and our brain, your nervous system, your body, gene expression, all of that, there's always the capacity to learn something else. And there are many periods in your life of increased plasticity, increased sensitivity to experience. So early childhood is one, adolescence is another where you have new experiences in your teen years can have profound effects. It's a really important time to intervene if you can put some positive interventions in place. Falling down love is another one which is so interesting.

It's like your brain and body understand, oh, we have like new important relationships in our lives. So if you had really difficult experiences growing up with family or if you had been in an unsafe, romantic relationship and suddenly you are in a strong partnership or strong relationship or a new community of support, that becomes a period of increased plasticity which is really cool to know. Becoming a parent is another huge window of plasticity. So much it's happening. You're not required to have given birth yourself for this to happen. It seems to be the role when you take on the role of a caregiver, which by the way is why I think getting a pet is such an amazing intervention that you can do for yourself and why there are so many great psychological interventions where people with PTSD, early life trauma, chronic illness, mental illness, they become caregivers of pets. It's such a great intervention, and it increases your plasticity.

Drugs like antidepressants can increase your neuroplasticity. Many of the drugs that are given to help people deal with mental health challenges also increase your brain and your body's ability to learn new mindsets, new experiences that can really help relieve some of these chronic illnesses or even change what's happening at the level of gene expression that would reduce inflammation. And so those are like major milestones for plasticity. But so when you understand that, then you understand why these mindsets are interesting to think about because it's not that having early traumatic events in your life did something to you that was like flipping a switch that will never be flipped in the other way again. But what needs to happen is you need a new view either about yourself or ideally about yourself and about others. 

The Definition of Resilience

Heather Sandison, ND: It sounds like this is a really big factor in terms of being resilient through life.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yes. Oh, can I share my favorite definition of resilience?

Heather Sandison, ND: Please do.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: I suppose I think that having just the right definition is transformative. So Salvatore Maddie was this psychologist who studied how people respond to massive change and disruption in their lives and he came up with this term called hardiness. And he defined hardiness as the courage to grow from stress. And so I just stole that, I'm giving him credit, but that's my definition of resilience, that it is the courage to grow from stress as opposed to the ability to be teflon to stress.

Heather Sandison, ND: The science of cultivating that resilience and that compassion, that ability to grow and become a better version of yourself through stress, speak more to the science, the physiology, the hormones, the biochemistry, the vascular responses even. You talk about it a bit in your work.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yeah. So well I think that ... so there are a couple of ways to frame that and maybe you can give me some direction. We can talk a little bit about like a challenge response, which is linked to resilience. We can talked a little bit about the interventions that help people have a more resilient response to stress.

Heather Sandison, ND: I love that. Let's-

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Point me in a direction. Which one?

What Can We Do to Build Resilience During Stressful Situations?

Heather Sandison, ND: Let's talk about the interventions because I think those are so tangible. Like what can I do today? If I have a stressful event, how can I be more resilient?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Okay, great. So let's talk about what you can do today and let's also talk about interventions that are a little bit more long-term. So in some stressful situations, one of the best ways to have to access the biology of resilience is to accept stress as energy that you can harness. So to start to redefine your stress symptoms. So like when you get stressed out, where do you tend to feel it in your body?

Heather Sandison, ND: My stomach.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: What do you feel?

Heather Sandison, ND: A little tingly but a little tight. And I start to sweat. And I can feel my heart race, but I'm not always aware of it unless I start to be like, "Okay, you're stressed."

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yeah. So three really common stress symptoms right there that can all be interpreted as what they are, which is like the side effects of your body getting ready to meet this moment. So we know that often what people feel in their stomach or their guts, whether it's digestive problems or like it's almost like an emotional sensation in there. A couple of things are going on, one of them is interoception. Your gut will often give you physical signals that you care before you notice it anywhere else. Like your gut loves to track, is this something that matters? And people often feel it in their gut first, but it can feel uncomfortable. It doesn't feel like I don't know what would be a good feeling in your gut, but often has that kind of discomfort, energy or tightness. It's trying to get your attention.

We know that your heart rate increasing and sweating, those are often signs that you're being energized and they're not necessarily harmful. In many situations, if you were feeling something like that what you could say to yourself is this is a moment that matters and my body and brain are getting my attention and getting me ready to meet this moment. And we know that just that, that labeling of what you're feeling as stress, and then what you don't do is what people usually do. They're like, "Oh, I'm stressed therefore I need a drink because I can't deal with this." Or I'm going to pretend this isn't happening and take some deep breaths to get rid of the feelings because the perception is the feelings are the problem, as opposed to the feelings being a signal. So you say, "Okay, moment that matters, my body is getting ready to respond."

And then you can just ask yourself, all right, what do I care about in this moment? What matters most? Or you could ask yourself, what can I choose? What can I do? And either of those questions, depending on what feels most relevant can really put you in the direction of having a healthier stress response with a different profile, stress hormones. So we mentioned things like adrenaline and cortisol, and we know that when people accept stress and accept it as a moment that matters where they can choose something that's consistent with their values or that is aligned with their goals, they produce higher levels of other hormones like DHEA, which really balanced cortisol and adrenaline and increase the chance that you will actually be strengthened by the experience.

So DHEA helps your brain recover from stress stronger in the same way that like when you exercise your muscles, if you were to lift heavy weights, it hurts, it's hard and you actually damage the muscle while you're doing it. But DHEA and other hormones helps your muscle gets stronger by having gone through stress. So the same thing is true with your brain. So we know that that's a mindset you could take like immediately that would help you be more resilient. There's no ... Oh, go ahead. Yes.

Heather Sandison, ND: Oh no, no. You go.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Well, so here's another one that there's a lot of research behind and this one is super easy. In fact, I'm going to use a prop that I have right here. You can text a supportive message to a friend or family member. And research shows that if you're feeling stressed out or anxious about something and you take a moment and think about someone you care about or someone else who's going through something difficult and you just send them a supportive text message, that it then changes your physiological stress response to whatever is stressing you out, giving you more courage, making again that balance of stress hormones healthier. There's something about helping others that changes our mindset about what we're capable of. It's like a sneaky way to access your confidence and your courage. So those are two like instant mindset resets that you can do.

Heather Sandison, ND: That was so fascinating to listen to you because personally, I was going back to the stressful conversation I had with a CPA this morning about like year-end planning and how many taxes I'm going to have to pay this year, and like super stressful. But when you described what to do about it, it's a moment that matters is what you said. And I was like, "Oh, the realm of possibility opened up that maybe it doesn't really matter that much." And it totally shifted my perception of that conversation and even everything, all of the year-end planning that I have to do. And so it's just like just in this moment for me, thank you for changing my experience.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yeah. Wait, so let me respond to that too, because I often forget to mention this, but we do sometimes have overreactions to life where checking in allows us to let things go a little bit. Like I might be having an unnecessarily heightened stress response. I tend to get stressed out when other people don't follow rules and it's not always that big of a deal, but I don't like to see it. And I'll get stressed out about like what it means that other people are being inconsiderate or whatever. And in some cases it might matter, but in most cases I have no control and it doesn't matter. And so in those moments where you check-in and say, "This is a moment that matters," and you ask yourself, "What matters most? Who or what do I care about?" It can go right through your fingers like sand and you realize you don't have to hold on to it. And again, because we have stress all the time and sometimes there are false alarms a little bit.

How Does Exercise Impact Stress?

Heather Sandison, ND: I want to kind of transition into the conversation around exercise and the role of exercise in stress.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yes. So exercise is one of the most effective things that you can do to increase your ability to manage stress at every level imaginable. Let me just give, if you'll humor me, give me a couple minutes, I'll give you some highlights. And let me say by the way, I define exercise as moving your body in whatever way you can, and hopefully in ways that you enjoy. So if you are in a wheelchair, if you are recovering from cancer, if you have Parkinson's disease and what is possible with your body doesn't look like stereotypical exercise champion. I'm still talking to you and about you, to be very clear about this.

So let's take the absolute smallest dose of movement possible. There's something called the feel better effect where if you've not moved recently, like we've been sitting for a while and when we end this call, if you move for three minutes in any way, do some yoga, stretches, put on a song you like and dance to it, even just walk up and down some stairs, do some shadow boxing, whatever, you will reliably send an increase in energy and optimism. It is so reliable as long as you choose a movement that makes sense for your body and that you don't hate. It is like the most reliable way to increase energy and improve your mood.

There was an entire book written about it like 25 years ago. Based on the robustness of research at that point, it just continues to skyrocket. So that's the feel better effect. Now, we also know when to go to the extreme end that people who are regularly active, it changes their brains in ways that makes them more sensitive to pleasure, more open to social connection and more resilient to stress in the sense that they are less likely to become depressed if they experienced trauma. If they are depressed, it changes the brain in ways that helps relieve that depression or grief or addiction, a lot of the sort of negative changes in the brain that come from a lot of different types of suffering. And there are so many reasons that that happens.

But the sort of the underlying idea is that if you are someone who regularly challenges your body through movement, and that's the key for this type of like really incredible changes in your brain and in your mental health. You have to challenge your body a little bit. So you have to get your heart rate up, breathe more fully and deeply. You need to feel like you are exerting yourself in some way, probably for at least 20 minutes, at least a few times a week. That seems to be like the dose required that it has such a profound effects on what is happening in your brain chemistry when you exercise and after you exercise and what is happening at the level of the chemicals in your bloodstream, that it is the best medicine.

Let me give you one concrete example, and then I'll be quiet about this. We know that when you exercise your muscles, your muscles release chemicals into your bloodstream that act as antidepressants and anti-anxiety molecules. They are manufactured in your muscles. Your muscles are like a pharmacy and your muscles will not give them up unless you regularly contract your muscles through some kind of movement, so any type of exercise. They travel through your bloodstream. They can detoxify the residue of stress in your bloodstream before it reaches your brain. And then these chemicals get to your brain and they literally act like antidepressant medication that has been naturally produced by your body. And the first paper I found that described this, I think it was 2013. They called them hope molecules, because these were molecules produced by your muscles that help you find hope even in difficult times.

And this is not to say that anybody should stop taking antidepressant medication or not use every possible treatment available through medicine and psychology. But I think the idea that your muscles also know how to manufacture hope molecules, and that exercise will change the structure of your brain to make joy more possible, to make social connection more possible and to help you deal with stressful life circumstances, even things as serious as something like grief and loss and trauma. That's amazing. That's why whenever people ask me ... I've written about a lot of things. I teach a lot of things. I research a lot of things. People say, "What's the one thing I should do if I want to improve my life?" And I always say movement exercise.

When Does Exercise Become Too Much Stress From Movement?

Heather Sandison, ND: Now, I want to take that to an even further extreme. Where is the line when it's overexercise, when it's too much stress from movement?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Yeah. So I always say to people, "Exercise is working in your life when it is making you a better version of yourself and allowing you to engage in the roles and relationships in your life that really matter to you as a better version of yourself." When it becomes too much is you start to notice it is actually impairing your ability to show up in other roles in relationships. Now that could be physically. So sometimes people get so hooked on the incredible mood reset that exercise can give them that they start over-training and then they have injuries. And then they're like organizing their life around trying to take care of their physical injuries because they're chasing a powerful mood reset that really is like medicine. Other times people get kind of obsessed with movement and they might find that they're fitting in so much training that their family and friends are like, "Hello, where are you? I miss you."

And you can also get confused about the purpose of movement. And for some people it turns into wanting to look a certain way, and then you can get lost down that rabbit hole. So the two months is when you look at the effect of movement in your life, is it enhancing who you are or has it become who you are? And like for me, I exercise a lot compared to maybe the average American, like it's totally normal for me to exercise twice a day. I exercise in the morning, even though I'm not a morning person. Like I did this morning, I did a 30 minute cardio workout because I know it makes me a better version of myself. It makes me braver. It's really good for me for dealing with anxiety. It makes me more open to others.

So that 30 minutes is a gift to everyone else in my life, as well as me. And then I also get a lot of meaning out of teaching movement. So right after this, I'm going to run off and teach an outdoor dance class at Stanford and that fills me with so much joy, right? So that might seem like a lot, but it is really enhancing my meaning and purpose in life. And the people in my life are glad that I'm doing it because they're the recipient of it. So that's one way to think about it.

Heather Sandison, ND: That is such a empowering way to think about it. And I think especially for women or caregivers, that I'm getting exercise as a gift to everyone around me, not just as a gift to myself. It sort of gives us a little bit more permission to make it a priority.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: I can't tell you how many people I talked to who said their families will tell them to go out for a run. When I was researching my last book, so I went out and I asked people to talk about their joys of movement. So many people were like ... because the thing is, this is one of the things I didn't talk about, but how exercise changes your brain chemistry in the short term, one of the most common effects is it increases levels of endorphins and endocannabinoids which are really bonding brain chemicals, that when you're high on endorphins and endocannabinoids that are naturally produced, not because you've taken a lot of recreational drugs, it's a slightly different effect, but the natural occurring levels, it seems like endorphins and endocannabinoids are there to help you connect with others, cooperate with others, take joy in being social. It's like a human survival strategy.

And so you go out, you get your runners high, even if you were running on your own and you come back and you're this version of yourself who's going to be better at dealing with conflict, more patient with your kids, more loving towards your partner, your pet or whatever, better leading your team. And again, like I experienced that. And so my husband will sometimes tell me to exercise.

About Kelly McGonigal's Books

Heather Sandison, ND: So I know so many of our amazing listeners are going to want to know more about how they can increase resilience and use exercise for strengthening relationships. Where can they learn more about the books you have on offer?

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: So the most recent book is called The Joy Of Movement. And we've been talking about stress, the upside of stress, and both of them are available anywhere you might want to buy a book or you can go to my website,

Heather Sandison, ND: Excellent. So I know that you have a class to go teach outside dance class. I love it. I love that you're an influential, a very accomplished woman who like you have continued to make that a priority. You're teaching a 2:00 class on a Monday afternoon, an exercise class, not a lecture at Stanford, but like you are making exercise classes a priority and I think that speaks to the rest of us. Like it's such a great model that no matter how much busy-ness there is in our lives, what we make priorities, the habits that we create really define who we are long-term.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: I want to thank you for that. And I just want to say as an encouragement to anyone listening, who has felt a similar conflict, I recognized a while ago that I don't believe there's anything I do that creates more immediate value than leading group movement experiences. And even though it is not valued by the world to the same degree, I paid attention to my direct experience. It was extremely meaningful to me. and I believe it's making a difference in the lives of my students and in my community. And I've now decided I will prioritize that over everything else. And I encourage people to listen to their direct experience about what matters. That is such a source of resilience, because when you care in a positive way and you get feedback from the universe that what you do matters, there's nothing else that will sustain you as much, even when everything else like now, like the crisis that we're all living through, even when that is so different.

Life Values Based on Fulfillment vs. Finances

Heather Sandison, ND: And we didn't get a chance to chat about this. I want to be mindful of your hard stop, but you're trained as a cat adoption counselor. I would imagine that's another place where maybe society and the financial systems don't value what you're doing there, but that as a direct experience is-

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: So the way that I came about that is every year, I look for a way to dedicate myself to something in my life. And this was maybe like 2013, 2014, I thought about what I teach and what I preach but I wasn't really practicing. And I had been teaching about how direct volunteering was so good for health, so good for reducing the harmful effects of stress. And I looked at my life, I felt like I was writing checks to organizations I believed him. And I said this year is the year I'm going to show up and do something physical and sense my contribution to this movement that I care about. And so I started working with two different animal rescue organizations. And again, I look at that as one of the smartest choices I ever made. There is something about showing up and being of service that is for me, it's a extremely important source of resilience. And it's just, it's another example of trying to pay attention to direct experience.

Heather Sandison, ND: I love hearing that you are practicing what you're preaching, and also there's so much integrity in looking for where is the spot that I am not fully doing that? Thank you for modeling it and for the reminder. Kelly, it's been such a pleasure having you here today. Thank you so much for sharing your very limited time. I so appreciate it. Thank you as well to all of our listeners for joining us.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Thank you.

Heather Sandison, ND: [Jacqueline 00:44:56], did you want to jump in and add anything or?

Jacqueline: Yeah, that was lovely. Thank you so much Kelly for joining us. Super valuable conversation, excited to share that with our community, I'll be in touch about release dates. And then Heather, if you can stay on with me, I'd love to record an intro with you before you hop off.

Heather Sandison, ND: Absolutely. Kelly, enjoy your class.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Thank you so much for your really positive energy. You made that really easy and fun.

Heather Sandison, ND: Oh, good.

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.: Take care.

Heather Sandison, ND: Bye.

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