I stumbled upon this TED talk a few days ago, and it was just what I needed. I can already tell it’s the kind of thing I’m going to be telling my friends about and re-watching for months to come, so of course I had to share it with you all.
The talk is given by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University. I had never heard the term “health psychology” before, but from what I gather, it has to do with studying how people make decisions, and exploring how to help them make healthier ones.
This talk specifically has to do with how we think about stress, and how our pre-conceived notions about the effects stress has on us can actually affect how our bodies react to it.
One point which I found particularly relevant to my own life is the idea that people who care for others in some way—whether it’s friends, family members, or simply volunteering– seem to bounce back more quickly from traumatic events that happen in their own lives.
McGonigal outlines some of the biological underpinnings to this phenomenon, in particular the role of the hormone oxytocin.
Like many others, I had heard of oxytocin before, and thought of it as the “bonding hormone” because it is released at times when, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for us to form connections with others. For example, oxytocin floods our systems during experiences like sex and childbirth.
What I didn’t know is that oxytocin is technically a stress hormone. Our bodies release it during times of stress precisely to motivate us to reach out to others. Oxytocin also has a protective effect on the heart, which begins to explain why those with more social connections do not show as many negative stress-related health effects.
Some of my favorite quotes are:
“When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”
“When you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”
“Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort…. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and then trust yourself to be able to handle the stress.”
I loved this last quote so, so much.
The message is this: don’t assume that stress is always harmful. It can be harmful if you’re afraid of it, or if you don’t have enough social support. But don’t let the fear of stress stop you from doing something you find truly meaningful, that gives you that sense of connection to the meaning of life. Because it is that connection, itself, that will enable you to handle the stress of what you are trying to do.