So when Martyn, our founder, told us recently that he had watched a TED Talk that shed new light on stress, our eyes lit up.
The talk in question, called ‘How to make stress your friend’, was given by Kelly McGonigal at TEDGlobal in 2013. McGonigal, a health psychologist, starts with a confession. For the last ten years she has been telling people that stress makes you sick. She now realises that this advice might have been doing more harm than good.
McGonigal quotes a study showing that stress does indeed raise the risk of dying. However, this was true only for people who suffered from stress and believed it was doing them harm. Stress sufferers who did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die than the stress-free.
In other words, it is not the stress itself that kills you. What kills you is the belief that the stress will kill you!
Changing How We View Stress
Therefore, McGonigal advises, we must change our view of stress. Stress symptoms – namely rapid breathing and a pounding heart – are usually viewed as signs that we are not coping. Wrong, she says: they are positive signs that the body is preparing itself to meet a challenge.
What McGonigal says is broadly reflected in our own practice at MSB Executive. We agree that stress should not be viewed as an ‘enemy’. This is itself a stressed response that traps mind and body in a vicious circle. We work with our clients on managing stress, not on crushing it.
Like McGonigal, we are enthusiasts for the increase in oxygenated blood that flows around the body under stress. We love the energy bonus it gives us as performers. As I used to tell my young drama students, ‘It’s good to be nervous! It means you know it’s important and you’re getting ready to do your best.’
There are areas, though, where we would develop and refine McGonigal’s advice. At MSB Executive, we like to work practically. McGonigal’s instruction to ‘change your beliefs’ begs the question: how? We like to give clients specific tips, tools and techniques to help them cope with stress.
McGonigal’s talk doesn’t cover the mental effects of stress – such as sleeplessness, racing thoughts, the negative inner voice. This mental turmoil makes it extremely difficult to get hold of one’s beliefs in the moment and change them. Therefore, a vital first stage is to manage the symptoms of stress downwards, so that the mind is calmer and clearer.
Stress stems from a primitive fight/flight response (see my earlier blog on this subject). The modern stress response is poorly aligned to the actual threat faced (there is no tiger!). Armed with this knowledge, we already begin to put ourselves back in control.
McGonigal talks about the effect of stress on the heart, but its symptoms can be felt throughout the body. There is not much one can do about constricted blood vessels, but one can directly address tense shoulders, a churning stomach, or a dry mouth.
In fact we find it reassuring to know that the path to a calmer mind can lie through simple physical exercises, especially breathing. ‘Change your beliefs’ takes a little work. ‘Breathe out slowly for a count of eight’ – now that is something that can be done immediately.