Locking your dog in your office and other stressful hassles can be good for you, depending on how you think about it.
I looked at my office door in disbelief.
I’d just pulled it shut and heard the lock click. Phone, wallet, car keys and dog were locked on the other side of the impenetrable door. It was late on a Friday afternoon.
I could feel the adrenaline surging through my system, my heart pounding, my breath rapid, as I stared wide-eyed at the locked door. This is what McGonigal, a Ph.D. psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, describes as a challenge response to stress.
“Like a fight-or-flight response, a challenge response gives you energy and helps you perform under pressure,” McGonigal writes. “But it differs from a fight-or-flight response in a few important ways: You feel focused but not fearful. You also release a different ratio of stress hormones … which helps you recover and learn from stress.”
Choosing to view a racing heart as a resource is more than a mindset trick that can transform your physical stress response from threat to challenge, McGonigal writes. “It can also change how you feel about yourself and about your ability to handle what life is asking of you.”
Think about that the next time you’re feeling shaky before a big work presentation.
Standing in front of that locked door, I focused on my options: I could break my office window — a complicated solution that could get me evicted. I could walk home and get my husband to help somehow. That was going to take a couple of hours, with no guarantee of success (in the panic of the moment, I’d forgotten I had a spare office key at home). Curling up in a ball in tears wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
I clearly needed to get in touch with the building owner. I started searching the building that dark, rainy afternoon for a friendly face with a phone.
As I tentatively walked into one of the offices upstairs, I drew on what McGonigal calls the tend-and-befriend stress response which “increases courage, motivates caregiving and strengthens your social relationships.”
I found nice people still working late. We had a (shaky) laugh over my plight, and one of the women tracked down the building owner’s phone number and called.
No answer. I left a pathetic message. The guy was probably on a long vacation. My dog was going to die a horrible death in my locked office.
I had one last idea: I used the front door intercom to call up to the building owner’s office. Miraculously and fantastically, someone answered, a spare key was found, and my office was opened.
A very relieved dog jumped into my arms and I felt a wash of the excite and delight side of stress: the chemical cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone and dopamine that “is one reason some people enjoy stress — it provides a bit of rush,” McGonigal writes.
As I packed up to head home, I moved into the benefit finding stress response. “Inviting other people to see the good in difficult circumstances is a tricky task, but some scientists have begun to show that it can transform people’s experience of both ordinary, everyday stress and more severe suffering,” McGonigal writes.
As I thought about what happened, I began to smile. I clearly need a better system for leaving my office to run to the bathroom. But I also deeply appreciated connecting with the nice people in the office upstairs. I couldn’t wait to put together a thank you for the lovely woman who lent me her phone. I had a great story about my stressful adventure to tell my family at dinner.
And Zilly lived to wag his tail another day.