Books on stress and the mind

From historical roots to new science – the following are some of the books I used when researching stress. Similar to those in part 2, some of these books are not specific to stress, although two of them are. The other ones mentioned helped enhance my knowledge of the many factors which can influence the production and manifestation of stress, including: biological, physiological, psychological, environmental, social and experiential.

Hans Selye – The Stress of Life

Hans Selye has been described as the father of stress and founder of the stress theory.  His ground breaking work and research on the topic of stress spawned a plethora of activity and debate in the scientific, medical and academic world. He was also a prolific writer penning over twenty publications spanning four decades.

His book helped deepen my knowledge of the neuroendocrine mechanisms that are central to the production and release of stress.

From a historical and biological perspective, it’s also a fascinating book, however, his constant portrayal of stress as an illness and disease is open to question.

While his research and work in the area of stress is phenomenal, his teachings were heavily weighted towards portraying stress as an illness and disease. Some of his findings are also disputed by other experts in the field.

For example, his theory of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) was questioned for been too vague. And in relation to the stress response, little consideration was given to cognition, perception and interpretation of the stimulus (Mason 1971). Having said that, he did try address some of these issues in his later writings.

Hans Selye On Stress

Aging: Hans Selye described stress as ‘the rate of wear and tear caused by life’ and said:

“True physiologic aging is not determined by the time elapsed since birth, but by the total amount of wear and tear to which the body has been exposed”

Negative & Positive: “The fact that you can’t see it directly or otherwise demonstrate it as such, does not make stress less real. That doesn’t make it necessarily something bad, it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating, creative and successful work is beneficial, while that of failure, humiliation or infection is detrimental. Adapting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one”

 Dr Kelly McGonigal – The upside Of Stress – Why Stress is good for you (and how to get good at it)

Dr Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and the internationally bestselling author of the Willpower Instinct.

 I’ve been fascinated for decades about how mindset can influence the quality of our lives. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I started the Winning Minds Movement. So it’s quiet heartening when someone like Dr McGonigal talks about a ‘stress mindset’.

Dr McGonigle also confirmed something I had believed for many years: stress can be good for you.  She says “Stress can make you stronger, smarter and happier”. Her book has been described as: “A life changing read for anyone under stress who wants to make it work for them” And: “A ground breaking book that overturns long-held beliefs about stress”

The book provides ‘cutting-edge discoveries on the correlation between resilience – the human capacity for stress-related growth – mind-set, and the power of beliefs to shape reality’.

There’s little doubt this was a ground breaking book about stress which pushed the boundaries of what stress is. It presented new science and evidence of how stress can be good for you – and how to get good at it.

Her book is a crash course in the new science of stress and what psychologists call mindsets. It’s divided into two parts with practical exercises:

Part 1 – Rethink Stress

Part 2 – Transform Stress.

Dr McGonigle sums up the core message of her book and says: “Instead of trying to eliminate stress, we can change our mind-set and use stress to improve our lives and performance”.

Dr Kelly McGonigle On Stress

“Embracing stress can make you feel more empowered in the face of challenges. It can help you turn stressful experiences into a source of social connection rather than isolation. It can lead you to new ways of finding meaning in suffering. By rethinking and even embracing stress, you can change its effect on everything from your physical health and emotional wellbeing to your satisfaction at work and hopefulness for the future”.

Jan Muhlfeit and Melina Costi – The Positive Leader – How energy and happiness fuel top-performing teams

Jan Muhlfeit is a global strategist, executive coach & mentor – and former chairman of Microsoft Europe. Melina Costi is a professional business writer with a background in marketing and management.

Although this book is on leadership in a corporate context, the authors lend several interesting pages to the management of stress. In doing so, they describe stress as both negative and positive. I found it very informative on how stress manifests itself – and how it can be managed in a workplace and executive context

The authors also provide a helpful ‘stress test’ (workplace related) with 12 questions to help identify if you have excessive stress They also recommend: “The best way to assess your stress levels is through self reflection”.

Jan also shares a personal story of what he terms as a ‘breakdown’ (and hospitalisation) as a result of chronic stress and burnout – and states that the ability to control our thinking is a key factor in managing stress. To this end, he offers an interesting piece of advice: “The quickest way to change how you feel, is to change how you think”

Jan Muhlfeit and Melina Costi On Stress

“Short term stress is a sign you are pushing yourself to the limits of your mental capabilities, and brings an adrenalin boost which can strengthen your performance and heighten your memory capacity. On the other hand, if you strain yourself beyond what’s considered healthy, sending your stress hormone cortisol soaring, you can find yourself on a slippery slope to burnout”

 While having minimal reference to stress, the following 3 books helped shape my thinking and development of the ‘flipped approach’ to understanding and managing stress.

Professor Steve Peters – The Silent Guides – Understanding and developing the mind throughout life  

Professor Steve Peters is a Consultant Psychiatrist who specialises in the functioning of the human mind. He is also creator of the Chimp Management Mind Model and runs the Chimp Management company which is charity supporting.

His book explores neuroscience and psychological aspects of the developing mind, unconscious thinking, behaviours, habit formation and related topics in an easy to understand way. It then offers practical ideas and thoughts for the reader to reflect on using 10 helpful habits as examples. The book, he says is: “For yourself, or with a view to gaining ideas on nurturing or managing a child”.

His simplified writing on the brain and mind is a breath of fresh air and he lends a whole section of the book (part 2) to talk about the neuroscience, the developing mind, and how we make sense of experiences.

Professor Steve Peters On Stress

“Talking out loud either alone or with someone else reduces stress levels. On the other hand, bottling things up can lead to intrusive thoughts that just won’t go away. By talking things through it has been found that if the same stressor was met again, the person will deal with it better than the person who did not talk it through (Derek, is this a form of resilience training or inoculation) Another advantage of talking out loud is that we rationalise events and feel less threatened. This can change the emotions we feel towards the event”

Tim Lomas – Kate Hefferon – Itai Ivtzan. – Applied Positive Psychology… integrated positive practice

Tim Lomas is a lecturer, and Kate Hefferon & Itai Ivtzan are senior lecturers, in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London

This book is aimed at students of Applied Positive Psychology on university courses. It was of particular interest to me because of the references to the biopsychosocial model of wellbeing and positive mental health – and the biochemistry and neural networks of the brain and body.

The authors also include reference to work place stress and refer to The JD-R model as: “Perhaps the most well researched model related to work and wellbeing”. (Job Demands – Resources – Demerouti et al, 2001)

On Stress

“If demands exceed resources, the result is work related stress and, eventually, burnout; conversely, if resources surpass demands, one ideally attains the positive work related state of engagement (Schaufelti et al., 2009).”

Professor Peter Kinderman – The New Laws Of Psychology

Peter Kinderman is professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool and has served twice as chair of the British Psychological division of Clinical Psychology.

A campaigner for mental health interventions outside of the biomedical model, Peter Kinderman in his book presents a very interesting chapter on focusing on promotion of wellbeing, rather than treating illness, as the way forward for mental health services.

Peter believes: “Human behaviour – thoughts, emotions, actions and mental health – can be largely explained if we can understand how people make sense of their world and how that framework of understanding has been learned”.

His book has been described as controversial as it challenges notions such as ‘mental illness’ and ‘abnormal psychology’

Professor Peter Kinderman On Stress (and distress)

“It’s usually an understandable reaction to life’s challenges”