The Upside of Stress book review


Another book that touches on post-traumatic growth is The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It by Kelly McGonigal, Ph. D.  We’ve all heard how much of a toll stress takes. We’re supposed to avoid it as much as possible. If we can’t, and who can, we need to have an arsenal of methods to cope with it. But there is more to the story.

While McGonigal doesn’t exactly expect us to seek out stress, she has the research to prove that good can and does come out of stressful events. She even teaches a course at Stanford University called The New Science of Stress. Her definition is “stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.”

McGonigal offers some studies on how a simple change of mindset can influence the outcome of a stressful situation. The first step is to acknowledge the stress when you experience it. Allow yourself to notice how it affects you, particularly your body. The second step is to welcome stress because it is a response to something you care about. Think about what is at stake and why it matters to you? The third step is to make use of the energy that stress gives you instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do that reflects your goals and values? People who learn to do this report less anxiety and depression and better physical health. They feel more focused, creative, and engaged.

McGonigal also describes two stress reactions beside the fight-or-flight we’re familiar with.  She calls one response tend-and-befriend. Earlier studies that focused on fight-or-flight were done mostly on men. Women, however, tend to have the tend-and-befriend response more often. This motivates you to protect the people and communities you care about. It seems not only adrenaline but also oxytocin is released during stress. This has been called the “cuddle hormone.” It helps build social connections and also builds courage.

A third reaction is growth. During the recovery period from stress, hormones also increase activity in the brain that supports learning and memory. In other words, past stress teaches the body how to handle future stress.

One major takeaway from McGonigal’s book is that the worst response to stress is to isolate yourself and think nobody else has experienced what you are facing. Helping others is a highly effective way to handle stress. Having a bigger-than-self goal is important. What do you want to contribute to your community?

Do you have a goal that is bigger than yourself?  Do you have a strong social support network?


Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert on the mind-body relationship. She teaches for the School of Medicine’s Health Improvement Program and is a senior teacher/consultant for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her work demonstrates the applications of psychological science to personal health and happiness, as well as organizational success and social change.


Bouncing Forward book review


Michaela Haas introduced me to the science of posttraumatic growth in her book Bouncing Forward: Transforming Bad Breaks into Breakthroughs. In it, she interviews twelve people who have experienced this including Maya Angelou and Temple Grandin.

Haas has been a practicing Buddhist for twenty years, and those teachings are apparent. But she also turns to medical and psychological experts for scientific validation.

Contrary to popular thought, having a positive result come out of trauma is not a rarity. A leading researcher,  psychologist Richard Tedeschi,  says as many as ninety percent of survivors report at least one aspect of posttraumatic growth, such as a renewed appreciation for life or the discovery of their heart’s purpose. They gain personal strength and deeper relationships with others.

As has been written before, most notably by Viktor Frankl, it is not what happens to you that is important. It is how you choose to view it.

Haas concludes her book with five proven strategies to overcome adversity. In case they sound too commonplace or simple, she again gives the research that backs them up.

The first is meditation. Studies show that at least 12 minutes a day is necessary in order to be effective. And it should be a daily practice, not sporadic or occasional.

The next strategy is appreciation. Haas advice is to write down three things you are grateful for every day. These can be as small as a beam of sunshine. Writing them down is important. Better yet is to express gratitude to someone in person.

Connecting with our capacity to love is vital.  First we must love ourselves by giving ourselves the care we need: sleep, healthy food, and physical exercise.  The mantra Haas suggests is powerful:

“May I enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness.

May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”

After we can love ourselves, we can send love out into the world to others, eventually even to those who have harmed us.

Finally, integral to the healing process is connection. Listen to others. Everyone wants to be heard.

I’ve been lucky enough not to have experienced a major trauma, but I’ve weathered plenty of minor ones. I do try to cultivate gratitude when I am upset.

Which of Haas’ strategies most resonates with you?

The Natty Professor book review


I wouldn’t dream of missing an episode of Project Runway, and I am full of admiration for Tim Gunn. He has such innate dignity and kindness. Now that I have read about the darkness of his own youth and how he was able to overcome his demons, I have even more respect for him.

In Gunn’s latest book  he talks about his teaching philosophy. On, there is a bit of celebrity gossip thrown in, but he mainly describes what makes a good teacher or mentor. This is valuable information for those in education and in business too.

Gunn is a self-proclaimed lover of acronyms and presents his basics as T.E.A.C.H.

The T stands for truth telling. Viewers of Project Runway know that Gunn will tell designers if he doesn’t understand or doesn’t like what they are doing. He’ll say it gently, but he will say it.

E is for empathy. It is impossible to teach someone if you don’t know where they are from and can’t recognize their strengths.

A is for asking. Gunn is a firm believer in the power of questions. He does this not only with his students and mentees but also in everyday life. Seeking more information is second nature to him.

The C stands for cheerleading. Great teachers help the students grow by encouraging them and building their confidence.

Finally, the H is hoping for the best. Sometimes a teacher just has to let go and let the students sink or swim on their own.

Interspersed with Gunn’s thoughts are many paragraphs by others telling about the best teacher they ever had and why that teacher was so special.

When American students continue to lag behind those in many other countries, the need for better teachers is apparent. When the majority of employees are disengaged from their jobs, the need for better mentors is also apparent. Gunn’s insights could go a long way in improving these statistics.

Who was the best teacher you ever had?


Running and juicing and cursing. Oh my.



It is so difficult to know what to believe, isn’t it? Will that wrinkle cream really make my neck look better? Is this piece of exercise equipment being touted on QVC effective? Should I go low carb or low fat?

I try to find reviews written by real people before I invest in a product or try the latest diet. A book compiling all kinds of advice should be just the ticket.

I am really glad, however, that I am not married to A. J. Jacobs, the author of Drop Dead Healthy. Just reading everything he did was exhausting. Seeing it in person (and participating every now and then like his wife did) would have pushed me over the edge.

After an unexpected bout with pneumonia, Jacobs sets off on a two-year quest to become healthier. And when he says healthier, he doesn’t mean improving just the usual suspects, diet and exercise. He means head to toe.

Jacobs studies research and visits expert after expert on body part after body part. His book has 27 chapters ranging from the health of the heart, lungs, and brain to the hands, feet, and endocrine system.

The theories and practices he discovers are fascinating and funny. And the techniques he adopts are effective. He loses weight, gains muscle, and improves his cholesterol along the way.

After a favorite aunt who has followed all the “rules” succumbs to cancer, Jacobs has a moment of questioning if any of what he has learned and put into practice is worth it after all.

He concludes it is. In seven appendices, he synthesizes the best of the advice. Most of the tips are ones we’ve all heard many times: eat vegetables, park farther from the store, meditate.

The most unusual tip is to use a treadmill desk. Jacobs says not to buy an expensive model but instead rig one up yourself using a board and some books.  That’s a tip worth considering.

What products or techniques have you tried that actually worked?



Did I Do My Best?


I am one of those people who make the resolution to lose weight each and every New Year’s Day. And yet I’m still carrying those unwanted pounds. Thus, I read books on motivation in the hope that one day I will find it in me to follow the suggestions.

Marshal Goldsmith is a big time executive coach. He has worked with the likes of the head of the World Bank and Ford Motor Company, and his book Triggers boasts six and a half pages of glowing blurbs from various CEOs. If he’s good enough for them, he’s good enough for me.

Goldsmith defines a trigger is any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions. Our environment, he says, is the most potent triggering mechanism in our lives. I can relate to that. If I didn’t buy those cookies, they wouldn’t be in my environment calling my name. Still, knowing what to do and doing it are not the same thing. It’s a tug of war between the planner and the doer.

We need to forecast our environment by anticipating what might trip us up, avoiding those things (like those cookies,) or adjusting. When changing our behavior, we have four options. We can change positive elements, in other words create new ways of dealing with our challenges, or maintain positive elements that are already working.  We can also change negative elements by eliminating them or maintain negative elements by making peace with them.

My favorite part of the book is a technique Goldsmith uses that he calls the engaging questions. To make questions active, he prefaces them with “Did I do my best to…” Here are the six he uses for everyone:

Did I do my best to set clear goals today?

Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals today?

Did I do my best to find meaning today?

Did I do my best to be happy today?

Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?

Did I do my best to be fully engaged today?

Additional questions can be added depending on what your specific issues are. The key is to ask yourself these questions every day. You are no longer monitoring results or the lack thereof. You are monitoring your own motivation and reinforcing your commitment.

This is an eye-opening way to change your mindset. Question four is particularly meaningful for me.

What questions would you add to the list?

Having It All Is Not Out of Reach

I know how

I have had quite a number of jobs in several different fields over the years. That means I’ve participated in a lot of job interviews. At almost every one of them, the hiring person told me the company or department was busy. Very busy. Almost without exception, when I took the job I soon found that was just not true. At least for me. I was soon able to complete all the work I had to do with plenty of time left over. At one job, I surreptitiously wrote most of a romance novel. At another, I wrote a nonfiction book. At a third, I took several online classes.

Now, I am quite organized by nature, but surely I’m not the only one with that quality.  I’ve often wondered why most of the women I’ve met claim they don’t have enough time.

Laura Vanderkam’s book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time gave me some insights. As I suspected, most people overestimate how much time they work by quite a bit.

Vanderkam collected hour-by-hour time logs from women who earned at least $100,000 a year. Presumably, these women had more flexibility in their schedules than women with a more average wage. Each of them had at least one child under 18 living at home; however, their high earnings afforded them more child care options.

The author based her conclusions on logs of one week from 143 women for a total of 1001 days. She calls the results The Mosaic Project. Each hour in a 168 hour week is a tile in that mosaic. What Vanderkam discovered is that the day to day totals don’t matter as much as the weekly totals. These women worked an average of 44 hours a week. Women at lower salaries average 35 hours a week.

That left many remaining hours where the women were able to fit in family time, leisure activities, exercise, and even quite sufficient amounts of sleep.

Vanderkam describes a number of strategies the women used and adds some advice of her own. Some delegation is helpful. Family breakfasts count just as much as family dinners. Planning ahead for contingencies is vital. Too much TV is just a waste. Sometimes good enough is good enough.

That balancing act is not as hard as people say after all.

WYCWYC book review


When I spotted Carla Birnberg and Roni Noone’s small book on the shelf, the first thing I noticed was the endorsement on the cover by Venus Williams, ”Simple, powerful, real.” Who doesn’t want that in a book, right? What You Can, When You Can: Healthy Living on Your Terms puts forth an encouraging philosophy. Do your best but compromise if necessary.

The two women started blogging and have built up a community through social media. People can tap into this community to offer support and suggestions.

The authors start out urging readers to adopt a new mindset, that being perfect is an illusion. You start out with the best intentions; than life happens. What do you do next? You take baby steps, of course. Have persistence, but be flexible.

And, by the way, doing things for yourself is not selfish. Set boundaries and learn to say no. Reframe negatives into positives. Change “must do” to “choose to do.” If something really doesn’t work for you, quit doing it. Ask for help if you need it.

I’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating. We are the sum of the people we spend the most time with. Choose your friends wisely.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Be more active even if it’s inconvenient. In fact, embrace inconvenience. Take the stairs; park far from the store. Play!

There are many more common sense ideas packed within the covers, but you get the idea. Life is for living, and little things add up. Venus Williams spoke the truth.