When a friend posted this TED talk on a social media site recently, I was caught off guard by the title. Make stress my friend? Interesting, but not sure I’m convinced yet. Everyone has stress. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it.
However, stress does motivate me. So when I saw “How to make stress your friend,” I thought: Do I really want or need it to be my friend? But after watching Dr. Kelly McGonigal speak, I realize the answer is unequivocally, yes!
Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and professor at Stanford University. She describes herself as “a leading expert in the new field of “science-help.” She is passionate about translating cutting-edge research from psychology, neuroscience, and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success.” These are EXACTLY the type of scientists that we need to have – those bridging the gap to communicate these types of topics she researches into public.
One study that she mentions in her talk is one that tracked people in the US for 8 years by first asking them how much stress they experience and if they believe that stress was harmful to their health. They later looked up public death records to see who died. What may not be so surprising is that people who experienced stress had a 43% increased risk of dying. BUT, they found that this was only true for those who believed stress was harmful to their health. Interesting, right? Even more interesting, people who experienced a lot of stress but did not view it as harmful were the least likely to die.
Dr. McGonigal also described some research about individuals who were primed to feel physiologically stressed BUT to also view their body’s stress response as helpful – that their bodies were getting energized and to meet the challenge instead of the experience of stress itself. Those who viewed stress as helpful were not only less stressed out, less anxious, and more confidant, but their physical stress response changed. Their heart rate did not go up as much and blood vessels did not constrict as much either, which is what usually happens when you get stressed out.
This idea of making stress your friend and not resisting it is very similar to ideas I’ve talked about earlier, especially in regards to therapy and mindfulness. So often we resist what is and as it’s been said by Dr. Carl Jung that
What you resist, persists.
It’s also similar to the idea I talked about with regard to “self-focus.” The more stress we experience and the more we think that stress is no good –> the more emphasis we put on that symptom –> and the more thoughts that are generated about it because of the resistance we feel towards it. However, as we learn to lean into those moments of stress and just see it as a wave running its course or a moment that will pass, we fight less with it and, in turn, are able to focus more on the present moment. It’s about learning to become comfortable in those moments of discomfort.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the talk:
Chasing meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort.
Citation: Keller, A., et al. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31, 677-684.
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