Kelly McGonigal on Stress and Chasing Meaning

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.


12 thoughts on “Kelly McGonigal on Stress and Chasing Meaning

  1. Thanks for sharing and for introducing me to Kelly McGonigal! Really got alot of out of this talk, especially the last bit about chasing meaning. Very relevent to fibro, as perhaps if we deal with stress the way she suggests – reaching out, helping others, seeing it as your body rising to the challenge – we could ameliorate some of the effects of it on our nervous systems, therefor improving the fibro? V interesting. Have also watched another two videos of hers on youtube – one was a 10 minute interview on her life (excellent), and the other was about motivation (excellent). thanks sunlight! keep on doing what your doing. xx

  2. I’m going to wax poetic for a moment here – THIS BLOG IS AMAZING. You find the most amazing stuff. You are constantly blowing my mind, and the info you share has changed how I think, how I treat my illness, and how I live. Honestly. You and this blog should be famous because you could save humanity.

    1. Wow. Wow. Wow. So many people with chronic illness are often isolated socially, for economic as well as health reasons, I wonder how that impacts their quality and length of life? I am fortunate to have the physical ability to socialize, give back, etcetera etcetera. But on days like this when I can’t get out of bed, your post had reminded me to be grateful for the circumstances where I have easy access to the Internet, because we can share these ideas and strengthen our connections with others from our homes. XO

      1. Such a good point! I know I am so grateful for the connections I make with other bloggers… it really does help me feel connected to the world at large on days when getting out of the house and interacting with other people in person just isn’t possible. It would have been really interesting if Ms. McGonigal had elaborated on some of the reasons why some people are more isolated than others…

      1. Thanks for sharing this. It has given me a lot to think about. I am terrified of stress as it makes my pain worse but this puts a totally different light on things. I needed this at the moment, thank you!

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