The present and engaged mind is the mortal enemy of stress. Last week, I took a course on presentation skills and had an opportunity to give a three-minute talk on a topic of my choosing. Encouraged to speak about something that makes our heart sing, I immediately thought to make stress the theme of my presentation. In preparation, I watched a few TED Talks on the topic and did some superficial internet research on my own. From my shallow dive into the pool of stress literature, I learned about stress and its role in our lives.
In her TED Talk, Kelly McGonigal encourages listeners to embrace stress as a positive force. She quotes a study that questions whether the perception that stress affects our health matters. The study showed that stressed people who believed that stress was bad for them were far more likely to die from stress-related factors than stressed people who did not believe that stress was bad for their health. The study concluded that “the perception that stress is bad for us” is perilous to our health. While the harmful effects of stress are not inevitable, McGonigal encourages us to reframe our mindsets around stress and seek out help and closeness from others as a way to mitigate stress’s more insidious side effects.
TED Talks are powerful because they present information in novel ways. I remember McGonigal’s talk because she took a topic I was interested in and told a story about stress through interesting facts, statistics, and anecdotes. Even though her conclusions were generally known to me (i.e. stress management is critical to our health and socialization has positive health benefits), her talk helped me internalize the facts. I took McGonigal’s talk to heart and used my own research and experience with stress to prepare for my talk. In italics below, I shared with you part of my mini “TED Talk” that I presented during my course in the hopes that information on stress presented in a different way (i.e. this blog) may be useful in your journey to effective stress management and joy maximization.
Stress is what I like to think of as a double-edged sword. If we wield it effectively we can use it to slay our enemies, however, if we don’t know how to handle it, it can easily be used against us.
Everyone feels stress and for good reason. It is a survival response that can heighten our attention and help us save ourselves in the face of danger. However, when stress is not harnessed, it can become a toxic force in our lives.
Exercise can remedy our stress. Rigorous activity reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline (in the flight or fight response) and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that regulate our mood and pain responses. When I exercise, sometimes I use a visualization technique. Visualization has shown to be an effective mental device to promote healing. I picture my body as a pool of water. When I feel stressed, I see the stress manifested as a toxic swamp. When I exercise I feel my heart pumping faster and visualize that it is injecting the toxic swamp with fresh water. Even just after a few minutes of exercise I begin to feel better.
Another effective way to relieve stress is through mindfulness meditation. Meditation is not the absence of thought or motion, in fact it is an active process. Mindfulness meditation is the quality of being present and fully engaged in the moment.
Presence and engagement are our best defenses against stress.
Think about the last time you felt truly happy. Maybe this was when you were playing a musical instrument, experiencing runner’s high, or just laughing and joking with friends. Whatever the moment, I’m sure that you were living in that moment. Stress cannot touch us when we are living in the present.
So instead of letting our minds wander into the “oh, maybe I’m not good enough,” territory or the “oh, I feel so guilty about something” space, let us be deliberate and confront our thoughts in the same way that we would confront a rowdy neighbor. Instead of letting our stress about the future turn into preoccupation and anxiety, let’s lean into our stressors. Instead of letting our stress about the past turn into regret and doubt, let us come to terms with our experiences.
Our best defense against stress is presence. This does not mean distraction from our problems, rather engagement in the things that make us feel good and confrontation of the things that make us feel bad. Mindfulness is about living every moment.
Luckily, you were not party to my awkward presentation of this talk (more here), however, I hope the message both orally and typed was well-received. Stress does not control us; we control how we handle our stress. Happiness is located in the present; I hope you and your brain will spend more of your time here.