Last week I came across a TED talk from 2013 that blew my mind and changed the way I think about stress. I saw the video a few hours after delivering a talk on stress to the faculty and staff and George Mason University. In that talk, it turns out, I fell into the trap most of us fall into when talking about stress.

I told the audience stress is bad for them.

Turns out that was the wrong thing to say.

 Stress Is Neutral

I should have known better than to demonize stress. You see, I know that everything is neutral. So why not stress?

I know that it is the stories we make up about things that get us in to trouble. So why isn’t the story I, we and the media make up about stress, i.e., it will kill us, a problem?

Sure there is a myriad of statistics to show us that stress is “bad” for us; that it contributes to heart disease, autoimmune disease and early death. But what those studies (like all studies) show is a correlation, not a cause and effect.

What if there was something else at work here? What if it was our beliefs about stress that made stress bad?

I know I wouldn’t have believed it myself. But then I watched the TED talk by Kelly McGonigal and saw the science to back this up. All of the sudden, my own story of stress began to make sense.

I tell the story of working 60+ hours a week and how that landed me with multiple sclerosis. The reality is I still work 60+ hours a week (I’m self-employed for pete’s sake), yet I’m symptom-free and I don’t feel stressed. What’s the difference?

I had changed my story about stress. I even changed my relationship with stress. Yes, I made stress my friend instead of my enemy.

Make Stress Your Friend

Dr. McGonigal’s talk centers around the research[1] of Alia Crum, et al. The central thesis of that research is that it is our belief that stress is bad for us (and the thoughts, fears and attitudes that come with that belief) that makes stress bad for us. Don’t believe it?

Listen to Dr. McGonigal’s talk and let me know in the comments below, how you’ll change your thoughts about stress.


[1] Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Crum, Alia J.; Salovey, Peter; Achor, Shawn, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 104(4), Apr 2013, 716-733.

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