TED Talk Review: How to Make Stress Your Friend

The “S” word

We’ve all felt stress before. It’s completely normal to feel it when there is a big deadline looming at work or when you’re running late for school and stuck in traffic.

And how do we all deal with stress? Some traditional examples may be to:

  • count to 10
  • picture yourself on a white sandy beach
  • take 1, 3, or 57 deep breathes!
  • bury your head in the sand (not advised if in traffic)

Some of the above examples can help to a certain degree. I tell friends, clients, and family members to focus on their breathing as often as possible. There are many healthy responses to proper breathing. It’s such an easy thing to do and has an immediate and noticeable positive effect on well-being.

But sometimes it doesn’t matter how many deep, wonderful breathes you take. Your stress is still there.

Stress (in whatever form it takes for you) will always be present. For me living with a chronic disease like ulcerative colitis means that stress can loom like the Boogie man did in my closet when I was a kid. I just knew that he was there! Ironically though, he never actually did anything to me.

Maybe it’s more important to reshape our view of stress than it is to eliminate or avoid stress completely?

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal makes this point in the above video. She emboldens us to no longer run from stress or eliminate it from our lives. I needed to face that Boogieman hiding in my closest. Kelly asks us to “rethink [our] stress response as helpful” because it will help our bodies feel less stressed, less anxious while feeling more confident! That sounds like a pretty cool combination.

I tend to follow the belief that things aren’t ever really good or bad – it is how we choose to view these events that give them meaning. Kelly goes on to say, “when you view your stress response as helpful you create the biology of courage and when you choose to connect to others under stress you create resiliency.”

Stress can be scary…

When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis I spent two years hiding from the world because I was afraid that stress would make me sick again. CCFA.org posted an article titled “Stress may be an IBD trigger” that discusses the negative impact stress can have. The article states:

“Canadian researchers found that among 552 patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis followed for a year, the risk of a symptom flare-up increased when patients were feeling particularly stressed. ‘This is among the first evidence to show that the perception of stress had a direct association with disease course,’ lead author Dr. Charles N. Bernstein told Reuters Health in by email.”

Stress was my Boogie man and I ran from it by hiding under the covers. I feared stress because I thought that if my heart raced or if I was in a new, slightly uncomfortable situation that I’d get too stressed out and get sick.

Not a fun way to live.

The article concludes by saying, “If stress does trigger IBD symptoms in some people, then it’s possible that learning better ways of managing stress would help stave off flare-ups.”

Stress can help you grow stronger!

Learning better ways of managing stress…sounds like great advice but HOW?

1. Stop running from stress.

Not the stress of sitting in traffic or work deadlines. Those aren’t going away. Instead take some time and honestly ask yourself what you’re afraid of – maybe things like:

  • changing jobs
  • going back to school
  • beginning/ending a relationship
  • starting a new workout and/or nutrition program
  • fearing that you’ll get sick again

When we take a stand to no longer run from our fears we grow in that strength. The moment you decide to no longer let ________ have power over you you’ll feel this courage grow. I read a story once about a young man’s recurring dream. He was continuously being chased by a huge, ferocious lion. He’d run and run each night and right before the lion pounced on him he’d wake up startled and afraid. He feared that he was almost devoured in his dreams. Upon retelling this story to his psychologist he was prompted to go back into the dream and stop running from the lion. He stopped running and allowed the lion to catch him. He turned to face the charging lion. Having stopped running and facing the lion we was amazed to see the lion stopped running and chasing after him. Instead, the lion slowly walked up to the young man and told him, “I am your courage. Why have you been running from me?”

Stop running
Stop running

Stop running from stress – it may be exactly what you need.

2. Give stress a more powerful meaning.
For those two years I gave stress (and my disease) too much power. One one hand I had a somewhat legitimate reason to be afraid of stress – I thought I’d get sick and end up back in the hospital. Can’t really fault someone for that thought process I guess. But that thought process meant that I basically didn’t live my life for two years! Not really ideal either.

So what happened? How did things change for me?

Honestly I’m not 100% sure. All I know is that one day I realized that I did not want to continue to live that way. I had to make a change. For two years I lived with a fear of stress…and that ended up stressing me out! Basically an infinite loop of frustration, fear, and stress.

3. Look outside yourself.

The real turning point came when I looked outside of myself. I realized that I wasn’t alone with this disease – that there were many others living their lives with ulcerative colitis (or any other form of stress) and I wanted to do something to help them.

I was lucky to be put in a situation where I could help others. I met new friends that were living – and thriving – with this disease. I became part of a team with a shared goal of raising awareness and money to help others living with Crohn’s and colitis.

I had a bigger meaning now. The stress of living with ulcerative colitis was no longer as powerful as before. I found that my experience – my struggles and victories – could help others going through a similar situation. It was no longer about what happened to me. It was now about how I could use what happened to me as a story to hopefully inspire others.

A new relationship with stress

I no longer ask for stress to be eliminated from my life. If we don’t stress our muscles they’ll never grow. If we don’t approach the stress in our lives we won’t be challenged and find out how much we can achieve. I enjoy the stress of pushing my body to grow stronger and more fit with exercise. I now give a similar meaning to stress outside the gym and understand stress is not to be feared because it now has a bigger meaning.Now when I feel my heart begin to beat faster and things seem uncomfortable I realize that it is an opportunity to grow stronger.

Kelly McGonigal’s final statement in the above video sum it up nicely. She says, “chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.”

I stopped running from stress and found that once it caught up to me I was strong enough to handle it.

Take that Boogie man!

Joey Morstad

You might be interested in …