How to Make Stress Your Friend: TED Talk Review

I am a twelfth grader in a specialized, competitive program surrounded by individuals who value academic success. So, there should be absolutely no surprise that my stress levels typically hover between if-I-ignore-it-maybe-it’ll-go-away and I-stopped-feeling-all-emotion-three-days-ago.

As a result, when I read the title of this TED talk, I experienced a wide array of emotions. Skepticism, namely, as well as a budding hope (although that might’ve been the sandwich I ate earlier; hope and cramps are easily mistaken for one another). Essentially, I chose this talk to either a) gain a new worldview in which the grass is greener, the sky is bluer, and everyone speaks in rhyming couplets; or b) revel in yet another useless attempt to turn stress into something positive as tears roll down my cheeks.

The talk begins by presenting its thesis: stress is not the enemy. The speaker, Kelly McGonigal, then cited a study that tracked over 30,000 Americans and their relative stress levels – as well as their thoughts on stress’s effects on health.

The audience, including myself, are fairly unsurprised to hear that individuals with a high amount of stress have a 43% increased risk of death. However, if the individual believes that stress is not harmful to overall health, they become the ones least likely to die. This held true even when compared with the death rates of individuals with a considerably lower amount of stress. As a result, researchers postulated that over 182,000 Americans died prematurely primarily due to the belief that stress is bad. 

Which is absolutely freaking insane. 

McGonigal then presents an example where the audience has to count backwards from 996 in increments of 7 out loud. All the while, a demoralizing proctor does their very best to make them upset. The speaker describes the physical signs of the stress, such as an increased heart rate and sweaty palms. She then proposes that, instead of viewing these signs as indications that they’re cracking under strain, that the audience sees these signs as indications that their bodies are becoming more energized and prepared to meet the challenge.

The biological changes that occur as a result of this mindset shift are radical. Apparently, the body begins to share similarities with what it looks like during moments of joy or courage.

Then, McGonigal explains how oxytocin is a stress hormone. When individuals are stressed, they’re more likely to seek support from others. Furthermore, oxytocin helps protect the body from the negative cardiovascular effects of stress.

McGonigal concludes by citing a final study that found how volunteering and helping others increased stress resiliency.

I found myself agreeing with most of the talk, especially the oxytocin portions. I’ve found that collective/group stressing sessions are quite beneficial. Hearing about how everyone else is stressed as well somehow makes me more relaxed, and I didn’t know there was a scientific reason behind that until now.

However, I disagreed with the idea that all stress can be turned positive. Stress has, after all, both mental and physical effects. It’s all well and good to combat the physical effects, but how does one take such a positive outlook when they’re seconds away from a mental breakdown? In cases like these, where the stress is so continuous and seemingly-everlasting, where the individual can see nothing but a pathway of monotony, turning stress into a positive thing is extremely difficult.

As a result, I wondered whether there were studies that explored this same effect but on students or anyone else living a high-stress, repetitive life, where the stress is not so much hills and valleys but an endless plane.

Despite the above concerns, I would recommend this talk to a friend. I’d like them to know that it is possible for some forms of stress to be seen as positive, even though it might not apply to them at that moment. After all, it’s possible that a few years later, they’ll be in a situation where it applies. I think I’d prefer for my friends to know that this is an option and occasionally be able to apply it, instead of having them remain ignorant and suffer the effects.


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