A few years ago, Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal gave a TED Talk about stress. It wasn’t the first, and it surely hasn’t been the last, but her message stood out. In her talk, McGonigal cited research that proposed that stress might actually be good for you. In a nutshell, the research showed that the degenerative effects of stress on the body might be more about the idea we have that the stress we are experiencing is bad for us than the actual impact of the stress itself. So essentially, you’re making yourself a little internal layer cake of stress, and the icing might actually be the heaviest part. Lots of people saw or heard about this talk, distilled it down to an over-simplified point and thought “Whew, so I’m actually a rockstar for being stressed. That’s what I thought! Good talk, McGonigal, thanks.” But what McGonigal was really pointing out is that how we allow or train ourselves to think about difficult or challenging situations completely changes our body’s response to them. Sound familiar? Mmm hmm, thought so….
We have such a love-hate relationship with stress. We don’t want to be stressed out or overwhelmed, but we become addicted to the cortisol spike, and the rush of adrenaline and endorphins that make us feel unstoppable as we move through task after task (until the inevitable crash). We have a lot to do. If we’re not stressed, then we must not be trying hard enough, right? Well…perhaps not.
A question that comes up a lot in the mindfulness classes I teach is, “Will I lose my edge?” High-performing people sometimes worry that mindfulness will make them soft – that they’ll fade away into daydreams of rainbows and butterflies. As I’ve written about previously, mindfulness can actually have quite the opposite effect. It often leads to a sense of greater calm, but also clarity. By learning how to manage the emotional component of our response to stressful stimuli, we are often able to make better decisions, construct more creative solutions, and interact with others more intentionally. As one of my favorite yoga teachers likes to say, it is possible to experience intensity without being tense. Your intellect, ideas, and innovations do not rely on anxiety to exist. In fact, anxiety’s sometimes like an app that’s using too much of your bandwidth. Remove it, and everything else on the system starts running better.
Of course, there’s no disputing that our ability to plan, strategize, and envision hypothetical scenarios is necessary to success in business, and also, you know, to the advancement of society and whatnot. Our brain’s frontal lobe – our “executive center” – is designed for these activities. However, there’s no rule that says you have to be in a state of near panic in order to be able to think strategically. In fact, when put that way, it seems a tad counterproductive, wouldn’t you say?
Developing a regular mindfulness practice will help strengthen your ability to discern when your emotions are getting in the way of your productivity, and to acknowledge them without letting them overtake you. You no doubt have a lot of hard work that you need to get done every day. It probably isn’t always fun, and you may not feel much like doing it. So as a reprieve, you watch something silly online, send some texts you don’t need to send, and then vent to your roommate about how much work you have to do, and how stressed and overwhelmed you are about it. As you envision that pile of work, or even specific scary tasks within it, that familiar pit of anxiety starts to form, and your fear response kicks in. This would be a great time to breathe, and spend just a few minutes calming the chatter in your brain. It may help you better align your priorities and allocate your energy for cutting through that list. The chatter doesn’t get work done, your clear and present brain does.
Another idea might be to reframe that work, and to identify the aspects of it that give it meaning for you. Now, finding meaning in a community service project might be easier than doing so in studying for your Accounting final. So, reach out and make studying a group effort. Connecting with others is a great way to infuse work with meaning. The research McGonigal cites found that people who are engaged in work that is meaningful to them have brain maps that look like they are experiencing joy and courage, instead of stress or fear. They’re still doing the work, but they’re having a totally different experience with it.
Much like mindfulness teaches us to accept uncomfortable emotions without struggling with them, so we can then watch them pass, McGonigal’s talk encourages us to simply feel the stress, without obsessing over what a disaster it is that we’re stressed in the first place. Your brain and your body are craving a break from anxiety for it’s own sake. So take a few deep breaths, and give it to them. You won’t lose your edge, you’ll be better at knowing how and when to use it, and also less likely to let yourself slide over it.
Photo by Patrick Pilz via Stocksnap
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