Finding the Sweet Spot of Stress

Kelly McGonigal stands on stage giving a TED talk about Stress

writer icon Kajsa Ingemansson     TED   |   Culture     🕐 21. Sep. 2018

Stress in itself is not inherently bad. It is quite the opposite. While too much pressure, stress, or tension for too long is never healthy, to perform at higher or more intense levels requires tension and a certain amount of pressure. Stress is needed to improve performance and quality of life.

In her Ted Talk, How to make stress your friend, Kelly McGonigal presents a U.S. study that tracked 30 000 people for eight years. The study asked the participants two questions, How much stress have you experienced in the last year and do you believe that stress is harmful to your health? Afterwards, the researchers used public death records to find out who among the participants had died.

Believing is Behaving
Those who both experienced a lot of stress and saw stress as harmful for their health, had a 43% increased risk of dying. The people who did not view stress this way had the lowest risk of anyone, even compared to those who experienced little stress.

Over these eight years, while their study took place, the researchers estimated that 182 000 people died prematurely in the US as a whole. Not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.

What people perceive as true, their system will attempt to carry out, whether it has constructive or destructive consequences. By choosing to view stress-responses as signs of energising the body to meet a certain challenge, the game is changed completely.

The Performance Inheritance
Performers know this. Pressure and tension are tools to learn from in order to strike a balance between self-care and pushing boundaries as well as finding the appropriate tension for any given movement, moment, task or project. They need to know how to use and respond to stress constructively, as the onstage life demands another level of excitation. As Cathy Madden says in her book on Alexander Technique -

“Asking performers to relax when performing gives them an impossible task. You might as well ask them to be onstage and offstage at the same time. Performance is a highly skilled excitation in service of the extraordinary.”

Not everyone needs to know how to produce specific stress-responses on demand, as actors do. Yet anyone, in any industry, will benefit from learning how to consciously control their response to stress. It will create more freedom of choice as opposed to always running on default responses.

Forward Moving Expression
The big challenge is when the system is heavily conditioned by old beliefs and habits. In these cases knowing the theory and simply thinking differently is not enough.

People often experience that their attempts to change a belief and think more constructively does not work as integrating new responses can be time-consuming. The body will keep responding by default until the person has changed how they act out the movement that corresponds with the new thought. It has to become an embodied movable belief.

Until that happens the person will often feel restricted, held back, pushed down, and as they make small progress, pulled back into their old ways. It is often experienced as a fight with oneself, almost like the body is acting on its own accord.

These action words are not symbolic, it is what actually happens with the musculoskeletal system - the person literally holds or pulls themselves back or down. It allows little to no movement and restricts the ability to see possibilities. It hinders the natural instinct to express stress, and the emotion that comes with it.

The key is to identify these holding patterns and replace them with self-expression through movement.

Anxiety vs Excitement
Put in the context of public speaking, holding-responses pull the person away from the audience and forward-moving-responses moves them towards, connects them with the audience.

Holding-responses are filled with unnecessary tension. It lets the stress restrict movement and breath, which at its worst can cause panic and at best a tense performance. Forward-moving-responses coordinate the musculoskeletal system to support the organism with full breathe and movability. It allows the stress to be a current inside, energising the organism. This brings a level of aliveness and excitation appropriate for the challenge.

This is a way of controlling what is possible to control and choosing to trust the system to handle the rest. It will more quickly move into the flow of performing, which will take the edge off the stress-response. By activating trust in self in this way potential anxiety transforms into excitement. This is where the sweet spot of stress occurs.

With a little help from our friends
McGonigal points out that oxytocin is as much a part of the human stress response as the adrenaline making the heart beat faster. Oxytocin not only protects the cardiovascular system and strengthens the heart, along with other physiological benefits, but it also fine-tunes the brain’s social instinct and motivates people to seek support.

She sums it up, saying “your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress-resilience and that mechanism is human connection”.

If oxytocin is allowed to work its magic, without interference, the person will support themselves; through reaching out for connection, via forward movement and expression. In the example above, the support is emphasised by connecting with the audience.

When choosing to trust the organism in this way you are, in the words of McGonigal, “creating the biology of courage”. As a result, fear is simply along for the ride. It will not define the journey or hold anybody back.

Perhaps the most important thing to do to create greater success and live a long fulfilling life is to create the conditions for that sweet spot of stress to occur, over and over again. To make it easy for courage to always step forward and be the choice-maker, thus cultivating trust, connection, resilience and love.

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