Stress: The Wellness Killer?

At the bottom of this post is a Ted Talk given by Kelly McGonigal.

In the first half, McGonigal talks about a study that was done on stress. This study found a correlation between stress related death and the belief that stress is bad for you. The conclusion is that stress itself is not unhealthy. It is the belief that stress is unhealthy that is unhealthy. People who believed stress is helpful did not suffer from stress related death.

McGonigal then goes on to tell us about another study that showed that training people to believe that stress is helpful made it possible for those people to cope with stress better and this improved their survival rate. While she offers some compelling evidence and some amazing solutions, I’d like to discuss stress from another angle.

I don’t know about you, but no one needed to tell me that stress is unhealthy. Long before I had heard the words “stress” and “anxiety” I knew that how I felt in certain situations was not healthy. I didn’t need to hear, “the thing you are experiencing is stress and it’s a bad for you.” I already knew.

Maybe some people believe stress is unhealthy is because that their life experience has taught them that stress is unhealthy for them. Likewise, maybe some people believe that stress is helpful because it has been helpful for them. Like I mentioned in a previous post, one of the problems with clinical studies is that they often don’t account for individual differences. While generalizations can be helpful, when we’re trying to figure out how to navigate this (stressful) world, generalizations can really put some limiting beliefs on us as individuals.

If you can’t start with generalizations, then where can you start?

The conglomeration that makes up you is the most powerful problem solving entity that human kind has ever seen. You are at the helm of something that is designed to solve problems—not just one or two kinds problems either, all kinds of problems.

Think about it this way: When your body needs food, it tells you. When your brain needs sleep, it tells you. When you very quickly need to get out of the way of a speeding vehicle, that happens before you’ve even realized what has happened. When your body needs to stop and make repairs, it gives you pain to force you to stop and make repairs. I’m venturing to guess that when you in a situation that is causing you unhealthy stress, you have a mechanism that tells you that, too.  After all, not every situation can be solved by being able to run faster, yell louder or think on your feet.  When that happens, what do you do with all of that extra ability?  Try to shut it down?  Ignore it?  Say to yourself, “Stress is really awesome because even though I’m standing in this long-ass line at the bank, I am totally prepared for a robbery.”

I’m venturing to guess that you can identify the times in your life when you have experienced stress in a good way, too. That is the kind of stressful situation where your stress can be put to use.  It helps you rise to a challenge. It helps you find your loud voice when you need to yell. It helps you run faster when you’re getting out of the way of that speeding vehicle. It helps you stay up all night and get a report done that is due the next morning.

Does it make sense to put all stress into one box labeled “healthy” or “unhealthy?”

Here’s an analogy: Imagine that the major stressor in your life (be it your job or a relationship) is a hot stove and the stress you feel is the pain of leaving your hand on the surface of that hot stove.

You notice the searing pain, but you also notice that everyone else is holding their hand to the surface of the stove, too. As a matter of fact, everyone is telling you that hot stoves are great, and there’s nothing better than having your hand burnt by a hot stove. It may suck now, but the rewards in the future will be amazing! Stick with it and like everyone else, you’ll get the rewards that you are due. You desperately want to pull your hand away, but now you’re committed to this stove thing, and you’re worried about what people will think if you stop. You start injecting a numbing agent into your red, blistered, blackened flesh and start training yourself to believe that the pain is a good thing. As a matter of fact, you and all of the other stove people have developed a nightly ritual of injecting a numbing agent into your hands so you can get through the next day.

You probably get the picture. Sure, convincing yourself that the pain is good for you is great for your heart health, but what about your hand health? What about that mechanism that is telling you that you are in a bad situation and that you need to get out of it?

You can’t necessarily use the behavior of others as a guide. In my experience, some people have hands that are built for hot stove tops and some people don’t. For example, I used to work a regular 9-5 job and most of my coworkers were pretty satisfied with that, but I wasn’t.  It doesn’t make sense to hold every person to the same standard.  I guess we can say one person’s hot stove is another person’s pleasantly warm pillow.

One of the other things that I have noticed about this analogy is that causing yourself suffering in order to gain some promised reward in the future is an incredible act of faith. If we must commit daily acts of faith, we probably want to be really careful about exactly where we choose to put that faith.

McGonigal’s talk is certainly very helpful, and it’s a great reminder that our stress mechanism is designed to help us. However, stress doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s usually caused by some circumstance, and feeling bad is designed to help us, too.

It’s up to us to recognize our personal patterns of stress. Where do you easily rise to the occasion and where do you usually shut-down and flounder?  In which situations does it make sense to think of stress as helping you, and in which situations does it make sense to use that stress to move yourself into a situation in which you’ll blossom?  You know, that place where your stress becomes your joy.

If you have a hot stove in your life, figure out how you can get your hand off of it.

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