the conundrum: stress is good for you

That’s good news, right? Actually, the TED talk by Kelly McGonigal┬áis one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time.

I listened to it last November just before I was set to run a conference across town, while suffering a terrible head-cold, housing guests, and working two jobs. Whenever the pressure made me feel like I was about to collapse in on myself, I just repeated “This is good for me.”

When It’s Not Bad, It’s Good

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Ah, there’s the key though: stress is good for you, unless you believe that it’s bad for you.

Huh?

That’s right, as Ms. McGonicgal explains so much better than I ever could, all that talk out there about stress killing us has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stress has all the power you give it. If you believe that it will kill you, eventually it will. And it will do as much damage as it can in the meantime.

And When It’s Good, It’s Real Good

And, despite the hype, why should you even believe that stress bad for you at all? Think of what happens when you’re stressed: your heart speeds up, you breath a little faster, your senses start to hone in on specific things, sometimes adrenalin kicks in. These are all the same things that happen when exercise, or when we’re in love. Two pastimes classically touted for their health benefits.

But those things don’t feel bad, do they? Actually, if you thought about the fist-clenching, palm-sweating, heart-pounding, stomach-turning phenomena we call love as anything other than good for you, you’d probably label it akin to a heart seizure in terms of health benefits (I’ve had one, and it does feel remarkably similar). And when I was forced to run track back in grade school? It was only my desire to seem “cool” that kept me from hollering, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” halfway through the first lap (though I’m sure I looked it).

Well, as my phys-ed prof put it so bluntly, “You’re not dying, keep running.” And it begins to feel better. Exercise and stress, both. Once you believe stress is good for you, it becomes good for you. When it becomes good for you, it starts to feel good. And the conundrum? When it feels good, it stops being stressful. That conference last fall was a breeze, not because I wasn’t stressed, but because once I stopped feeling like the stress was bad for me, the stress stopped feeling like stress.

So just remember: The pressure is good for you. The stress is helping you. You’re not dying, keep running.

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