Day 18: What I learned from watching Kelly McGonigal’s Ted talk “How to make stress your friend”

Do you ever get stressed? Has  the effects of stress ever spilt over as physical symptoms? If you are looking at a way to eliminate stress from your life then this post is not for you.  Thanks to Kelly McGonigal and her presentation “How to make stress your friend” Day 18 of 365 Days of Ted is all about making stress your friend. If you up for the challenge keep reading…

The core  message that Kelly is sharing is that we need to train ourselves to stop seeing stress as the enemy and instead see it as a helpful response. This is a pretty bold statement to make especially when we have been imprinted with the message that stress is bad and will make us sick. Doctors, health articles, friends, self-help books,  family members  strangers on the bus, all tell us the same thing – stress is bad.  So why should we take any notice of Kelly’s claim? Before answering that I should point out that in her role as a health psychologist Kelly has spent a number of years also telling people that stress makes you sick. So why has she now changed the way she sees stress?

Kelly refers to a study which tracked 30000 adults in America for eight years and asked them questions such as “How much stress have you experienced in the past year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”  The people who had said they experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying, but, and here come’s the interesting part, that statistic was only true for people who viewed stress as harmful.  The folks who experienced a great deal of stress but didn’t view it as a harmful experience had the lowest risk of dying from the whole lot!

How is this possible?

So basically we don’t give our minds enough credit for the response it can have on our physical body. When we change the way we think about stress we also change the way our body responds to stress, but how do we change the way we see stress? Kelly gives an example of some common things that usually happen we get stressed

  • Pounding heart
  • Breathing fast
  • Breaking out into a sweat

I have never met anyone who hasn’t experienced those symptoms at one point or another. Usually we would see those signs and believe them to be indicators that we are breaking under the pressure and suffering from anxiety.  Kelly challenges us to not view these physical reactions as a bad thing but as indicators that our bodies were simply being helpful for the task ahead and in an energised preparation mode. So if we take another look at those physical changes you would read them as your your pounding heart is simply signally your body to get ready for action and your faster breathing simply means your brain is getting more oxygen.

Kelly brings another study to the table this time conducted at Harvard University where a group of participants were trained to view stress as a helpful response rather than one that spelt out doom and gloom. The participants were put through social stress tests and although they still experienced typical stress symptoms such as a pounding heart the effect on their health health actually bore resemblance to what happens in moments of joy.

Why does this matter?

Over the course of the years episodes of stress can mean that our cardiovascular health takes a beating. This is the reason why health practitioners give us grave warnings about stress being the enemy, but if this Ted talk has taught me anything is that I can beat stress at its own game by looking at stress as a helpful response, kind of like my body is saying “it’s all good you’ve got this covered” .





Today’s action step

The biggest lesson for me is that it’s okay to change the way we think about things such as stress.  It doesn’t have to be that big nasty thing we are preached at since school. I am going to try and catch myself in the moment the next time I experience a stress-induced symptom and change the way I view this.  If you would like to read up on the studies that Kelly references in her speech check out her speaker footnotes

How do you see stress? Is it the big nasty in your life or warm and comforting? Please share your experiences with stress below.