The other day I had a TED talk on in the background while I was scheduling some social posts for a client. The first 13 minutes of the 14 min broadcast went the same way most TED talks do:
- Witty introduction.
- Establish credibility.
- Present a problem (that you didn’t realize WAS a problem.)
- Provide a heartfelt, somewhat vague or impractical solution.
Kelly McGonigal, the keynote speaker, is a health psychologist who helps her patients implement practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success. She told the audience that, for years, she had been informing her patients that stress was very dangerous. It wasn’t until she delved into the topic deeper that she found out something very surprising; it wasn’t actually the stress that was making people sick, it was the belief that the stress was making them sick, that was making them sick. Go figure.
McGonigal’s conclusion was very simple (perhaps oversimplified): change your perception of stress. When stress begins to take a physical toll on your body (increased heart rate, higher body temperature, + upset stomach) it's preparing you for the challenge ahead, not working against you. The stress hormone (which also happens to be the cuddle hormone, Oxytocin) is urging you to reach out to those you care about, and bond with them over the stressful situation.
While this talk was better than most I’ve seen, her conclusion was still a bit vague for me. How the hell was telling myself stress was helping me, going to help me? Needless to say, I was skeptical.
At 13:35, however, I changed my tune completely.
The host of the talk got on stage and asked her the following question:
So you’re saying, that you can pursue a stressful situation (such as a job), as long as you believe you can handle it?
And here is how she responded:
Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. Go after what creates meaning in your life, and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.
BINGO. Now THAT'S the mind-blowing takeaway I was waiting for.
Living With Stress
Since arriving in Berlin, I have been living in a shared flat. In the beginning, it was great for me because it exposed me to new people from different cultures and allowed me to learn more about myself in the process. Lately, however, I have been feeling the urge to live in a more calm atmosphere. With all the various people coming and going from my current flat, it’s no surprise that it feels more like a hotel than a home. To make matters worse, a few months ago, my roommate informed us that her boyfriend would be living with us for the next four months…without asking me or my other roommate beforehand. As you can probably imagine, I was very stressed out about the situation. Longing for this idea of “comfort”, I threw myself into an apartment search (which turned out to be much more stressful than the alternative.)
Too bad this TED talk didn’t fall into my lap a few months prior, perhaps I would have saved myself a few sleepless nights.
Life is often uncomfortable and stressful. While I am a firm believer that you can just buy a one-way ticket and fly away any damn time you want, eventually the lesson is going to catch up with you. But exactly what that lesson was, was a bit confusing for me. My lesson wasn’t that I had to be a martyr and stay in a messy situation because I had to learn patience, or compassion, or communication. My lesson is that I should redirect my focus on chasing meaning, instead of avoiding discomfort.
A Practical Way to Deal with Stress
1. First, define what chasing meaning means to you. Here are some things that bring (or have brought) meaning to my life:
- taking care of a fluffy pup
- nourishing my friendships
- helping my girlfriends realize their worth
- helping others find their voice, talent, or passion and then encouraging them to pursue it
- empowering others, especially women and minorities
- writing relatable content, sharing stories
- being playful, silly, childlike so that others feel safe and comfortable to do so
2. Second, start chasing!