The good news is there’s a way to turn that smirk into a smile on your face. For starters, new research shows it’s not the stress level you experience that affects your health, but rather how you think about the stress that is ultimately beneficial or harmful.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal is now urging people to see stress as a positive. In a recent TED talk she said, “For years I’ve been telling people ‘stress makes you sick!’ …But I’ve changed my mind.”
Why? She looked at a study that tracked 30,000 adults over eight years. The study asked participants the simple question: “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” They also tracked death records for these people over the eight-year period. The ironic outcome: people who died from stress died not from stress but from the belief that stress was bad for them. Those who didn’t believe it was harmful experienced no negative effects on their health.
So Dr. McGonigal asked herself the obvious question: “Can changing how you think about stress, change the outcome?”
She became more convinced of an affirmative answer to that question after looking at another study where researchers analyzed the physiological response of people who were undergoing extreme stress but thought of it in a positive way. The result? They experienced the same physiological response associated with extreme joy.
She also discovered, based on yet another study, that people have a “built in mechanism for stress resilience.” Turns out your personal connections to the people you love and the simple act of giving to others can actually antidote the negative effects of stress.
Dr. McGonigal concludes, “How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”
This is good news. Most health professionals I speak with use the “S” word to describe a whole host of health issues that come across their doorstep. On the other hand, many of them also see and point out the value of a person’s state of thought — whether they practice gratitude, forgiveness, love and connection — as a key component of health and well-being.
This isn’t exactly new material. Think of Shakespeare’s wisdom that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Or this affirmation by 19th century Christian religious thought leader, Mary Baker Eddy: “Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts.” (See #9 on: “10 Positive Thinking Books That Might Change Your Life.”)
In his book, Change Your Mind: It’s All In Your Head, (2006) Mark Pettus, M.D., writes: “It’s long been known and universally accepted, for example, that stress in our lives can wreak havoc in every dimension of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellness.” But he says, “To change your behavior in a positive way, it’s essential to understand how behavior and biology interact.”
Dr. Pettus goes on to recognize, “It’s hard to imagine a better antidote to the biologic stress in our lives than cultivating networks of supportive relationships.”
According to Psych Central, those networks of supportive relationships are often found in church fellowship and prayer. Associate editor Therese J. Borchard writes, “faith attaches meaning to events. It gives folks hope, the ultimate stress reducer. Hope, doctors say, is about the best thing you can do for your body. It’s better than a placebo.”
Perhaps for the nearly 50 percent of Americans who reportedly pray about their health, cultivating a relationship with God is validated by the scriptural promise: “You will guard him and keep him in perfect and constant peace whose mind [both its inclination and its character] is stayed on You.”
So go ahead, you decide if stress is the bad guy.
For more by Ingrid Peschke, click here.
For more on stress, click here.
In New York City, we did what any traveling millennials would do and took the subway. We had a great time at the party celebrating the success of Galindo’s newest line and headed back around 3:30 a.m. I was dreading the train ride home. “We could take a cab,” I contemplated saying to Andrew. I already knew his response. “No. We’re not paying $80 for a cab when we can pay $2.50 for the subway.” Damn you and your logic,” I argue in this theoretical conversation. As we got closer to the subway, I could feel the anxiety growing inside of me. I pushed through anyway. For a moment I thought about blurting out, “Andrew, I’ll pay for the cab,” but I knew he wouldn’t accept that either.
We got on the A train and found a seat before Andrew was knocked out. I assure you it was the oldest, ugliest, most under-repaired train in all of New York City. I am quite sure that it hadn’t been inspected since the Great Depression. In fact, my (made up) expertise in disaster scenarios gave me the feeling that disaster was imminent. “Oh great, we’re going to have to cross the bridge on this creaky, steel speed demon and we’re going to veer right off of it to our watery graves and Andrew is sleeping.”
As the train seemed to speed up, I wondered if the driver was tired. I wondered if this was his last ride of the night and he wanted to get home quickly, so he was going to unsafely speed up. I wondered why the lady across from us was wearing a diaper and eating spaghetti with her hands.
The anxiety grew with every bump and every loud metal noise. I noticed that before every stop we would pass by a blue light. I started looking for them, knowing that each one meant one stop closer to home. I wanted to wake up Andrew and say, “Andrew this thing is gonna derail over the water! We gotta get off now” — however, I also realized how ridiculous that sounds. We got closer to the bridge and the anxiety grew worse. “I can just wake him up and we can get off here.” Andrew woke up for a moment and looked at me, gave a smile and said “It’ll be fine, Kyle,” before falling back to sleep. He had no care in the world. He didn’t care about the insanely loud noises of the subway train. He didn’t care about the bridge. He didn’t even care if the driver was going faster so he could get home. He simply trusted in the system. He trusted that the proper maintenance had been performed and checked. He trusted that the driver was well trained. He was OK with the fact that something might go wrong. I’d awkwardly look at him after each bump. Every once in awhile a particularly big bump would nudge him awake, he’d give me that smile and go back to sleep. That gave me so much comfort. Inside I’m freaking out with 100 percent certainty that I was going to die on that subway train — me and Andrew and the woman in the diaper. Andrew couldn’t care less.
I realized that by that point, we had already gone over the bridge. My worst fear about that situation had come and gone without a hitch. I had built all of that fear and anxiety up for nothing. I had told myself that disaster was just a squeaky wheel away and completely missed the opportunity to relax and enjoy the ride as Andrew had.
That’s a lesson I won’t soon forget. You can get off the train and take the long way, or you can stay on and enjoy the ride. Next time, I’ll be more like Andrew.
For more by Kyle McMahon, click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.
Sushi + Gummy Bears + Lilacs = Happy Birthday
I am not a birthday-party person. Inviting people over for a big gathering in honor of me feels embarrassing. And yet, I have noticed that people who are birthday-party people seem to know how to celebrate — not just others — but themselves. Two years ago, I decided I would try to learn from them. I thought, “What would make me happy on my birthday?” It was 8 a.m in the morning. I did not have the money to go to Paris. I did not have the energy to book a table at a happening restaurant where my kids would order french fries then knock over their ginger ales. I wanted to eat at home. But I did not want to cook, which is a skill that, sadly, my husband doesn’t possess. So: Sushi! You’re supposed to have a cake on your birthday, but I don’t like cake. So: Gummy bears! You’re also supposed to have streamers and balloons. But streamers and balloons feel like stuffing myself into frilly party dresses with patent shoes — at age 40. So: Lilacs!
Then I called my husband, who was able to purchase all this and arrive home by 7 p.m. and lay it out on the table. The party took 30 minutes. We ate. We sang a song. We blew out a candle on the gummy bears. And I felt great, just because I got what I wanted, but because I had an equation that would make me feel festive about this one loaded, inevitable day of the year — and I could simply repeat it the next year. It was not a complex equation. Nobody at Princeton was going to invite me on staff or invite me out to a desert to experiment with molecules. It was the simple math of how to make myself happy. And it occurred to me that there are times when all of us need to have these kind of no-fail formulas, specific to our needs, fears and understanding of ourselves. So I came up with a few for those situations that crop up and challenge us, again and again.
(62 Episodes Of “True Blood” + 1 Down Duvet) ÷ 2.5 Days = Monday Recovery
Let’s say you are like me. I wake up 5 a.m. to get “free time” which means I exercise or send emails or write creatively (aka sleep on keyboard). Then I go work nine to 10 hours a day. After that, my two kids need to eat, do homework and talk about things like “Who do you think is a faster runner? You or Daddy?” while sitting on the toilet for an hour, just to avoid going to bed. Somewhere after, they (finally) fall asleep; but before I (almost immediately) fall asleep, I read, hit “like” 600 times on Facebook and buy clothes online that don’t fit any of us but that we all wear because we’re too overwhelmed to return them.
Your schedule may be different. One woman I know sleeps until 8 a.m., works all day, puts the kids to bed then goes back to work from 9 to 11 p.m. Another takes care of her kids all day then works from 9 to 1 a.m. But regardless of the differences in schedules, most of us hit a Friday where we scream “No more!” For me this happens every six months. Then, like great old timber falling in a virgin forest, I topple into bed and line up four or five seasons of any show on Netflix or Apple TV. It doesn’t matter which one: “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “The Walking Dead,” “True Blood,” “Gossip Girl,” “Glee.” As long as I am swaddled in a soundproof, down duvet and not disturbed over two full days, plus Friday night, I can get up recovered on Monday morning and go on living my life. In a perfect world, we might say that we need to do less and avoid the whole burnout-meltdown cycle. But I can’t do less — and I hear the same thing from other women all the time — which is why all of us need this particular less-than-scientific formula, the one that lets us abandon multitasking, singletasking and anything other than pause, drool, repeat. (Note: Some women may have to put extra parentheses around the whole equation and subtract guilt).
Me x 21 Meetings = Functional Calm
I have a rule — a very new one and tailored to my personal style of paralysis and panic. When I need to get a new job or move to a new place or do anything that I’m totally and absolutely nervous about doing, I have to set up 21 meetings. None of these meetings have to come to anything. Nobody has to offer me anything on-the-spot or hand me the secret to my existence. But we do have to talk about the goal at hand.
In common sense terms, what this process does is let me gather information and learn from outside sources. But what it also does is force me to do something, just at the very moment I’m sitting at my desk thinking, “What if I can’t get another job?” or “What if there are no houses we can afford — ever?” I don’t have time for those kinds of thoughts; or, I have less time for them, at least, because I have to call somebody up and try to get them to go to coffee with me. The illusion of packed, high-power schedule — much like the illusion of decaf (which by the way does so have caffeine in it) — can be exceptionally calming. So much so that by meeting 22, I’m usually relaxed enough to make a decision — if not take action.
Two Equally Awkward People + One White Wine Spritzer + 2πr = Permission To Go Home.
In my 20s, my way of dealing with packed cocktail parties was to sit in the nearest potted ficus (there are always potted indoor trees in large public rooms, but so rarely chairs). After I’d polished off three glasses of wine and gotten mulch stains on the back of my skirt, I would go home. Something had to be done, I knew — and that thing would not be that I would suddenly become more extroverted or chatty with strangers, because, in my case, that was not possible. Instead, when faced with intimidating social situations that might lead to valuable personal or professional connections, I now have a formula: Circle the room (the perimeter of a circle is 2π times the radius) with (one!) white wine spritzer and, in the process, bump into or knock the drink out of the hand of an equally awkward person, engage in conversation while apologizing and cleaning off her skirt, then go home with some kind of contact information from her. Inevitably, this works because awkward people are very easy to spot (look for: people trying to look busy or wrapped up in their own thoughts, which really means just standing alone by the buffet). Further, they make the most interesting conversation because they are too befuddled to make witty banter. They just blurt out their true, undisguised thoughts and, in my totally biased opinion, honesty is always riveting.
Me – 17 Irrational, Emotional Flip-Out = What I’m Feeling About What Actually Happened
An irrational, emotional flip-out can be calling up the cable company and screaming at the customer service about the slow Internet connection. Or yelling at my husband about the ski rack he hasn’t put on the car even though it’s still summer. Or yelling at the kids about throwing water out of the bathtub. Or fixating on my neighbor who lives off a trust fund and never has to work and gets to stay home with her kids. Or throwing away half my closet because everything is lumpy and horrible on me. Or eating stale peanut brittle circa two Christmases past. Or — gulp — all of the above.
When these are removed, I no longer am able to work off a small portion of whatever is inside me (while alienating friends and family). Thus, I end up feeling very, very mad about the friend dying or very, very sad about the amazing promotion that didn’t work out. Neither of which are emotions I exactly want to have, but do let me examine what happened and how I might survive it. The upside is that this is the one equation in the world where, even if the answer is embarrassing or upsetting or not what anybody wants to hear at the time, it is always 100 percent right.
Leigh Newman is the deputy editor of Oprah.com and the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home.
In this first look at the interview, Nyad sits down with Oprah for a revealing conversation about chasing dreams, pushing limits and daring with intention and purpose. “What you showed us all is what a real warrior looks like,” Oprah says to Nyad in the video. “I can’t even imagine what that pain felt like.”
“The body is pathetic compared to what we have inside us,” Nyad says in the clip.
Nyad had tried to complete the approximately 110-mile swim on four prior occasions but barriers ranging from jellyfish stings to lightning forced her to abandon each effort. She tried three times in 2011 and 2012, and her first attempt was in 1978.
“It wasn’t so much what did I want to do, it was who I want to be,” she tells Oprah.
Watch part one of the full interview when it airs Sunday, Oct. 6 at 11 a.m. ET on OWN.
“Can you do me a favor? Take these,” he said, holding the bags out, “and if you don’t want them, throw them away.”
He said this each time he gave something to either me or my partner, Lindsay. When he was gone, I peeked into the first bag. There was an open bottle of Vermont Maple Syrup and a potato that had started to sprout tentacles despite being wrapped in factory-made plastic packaging with baking instructions on the label. The other contained a large yellow onion and a half-full can of aerosol Aquanet unscented hairspray, good for “14-hour hold.”
The hairspray was the first nonperishable item that Mike had given to me, and I knew with certainty that it had belonged to his wife. I’d never met Mike’s wife. I’d seen her only on the rare occasions that she emerged from the front door with her head covered by a scarf.
The hairspray reminded me of my grandmother, who had passed away years before. She had gone to the beauty parlor once a week to get her hair set until she was too ill. After that, my mother had taken on the role of beautician, tenderly washing her hair and rolling it into hot curling pins once a week, brushing it out and spraying the curls stiff.
After perusing the contents of the bag, I went inside and placed them on the counter, next to our fruit bowl full of browning bananas.
Three weeks earlier Lindsay and I had seen an ambulance outside Mike’s house. A few days later he knocked on the side door. Our two dogs erupted into a fit of barking. I braced myself when I saw him standing there, knowing why he had come.
“Hi, Mike,” I said as I pressed my body through a narrow opening. I stood uncomfortably on our cramped side porch, with one hand on the doorknob, wondering whether it was rude of me not to invite him inside.
“She’s gone, Dani,” he said just before bursting into loud sobs. His hand rose to cover his face. We had never shared any kind of physical contact, but I didn’t hesitate to reach out and touch his shoulder; it seemed the most humane of all my available options. He responded by leaning in toward my body, which resulted in an awkward hug-like posture between the two of us for which I was not quite prepared. I stood frozen, rubbing his shoulder for a bit while wondering again whether I should invite him inside, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Mike and I had a polite but superficial relationship. We exchanged hellos and engaged in brief conversations. I shoveled his walk when it snowed, helped with his grocery bags and brought his trash can in from the curb. He was my neighbor, a word that literally means “near dweller,” but as my hand moved mechanically back and forth on his shoulder, I was all too aware that we were connected by nothing more than a thin line of circumstance. I wondered what my responsibilities were toward this man, this stranger, my neighbor.
Later in the evening I noticed that the brown bags were no longer on the counter. I walked to the trash can and stepped on the foot pedal. There, amidst the coffee grinds and wet paper towels, was the gold can of Aquanet with all of its promised holding power. I imagined Mike alone inside his house, going through his wife’s things, sorting them into piles; I imagined him standing above his own wastebasket, holding that can of hairspray, unable to let it go. A bit further down in the trash, the bottle of syrup lay half-covered by scraps of food.
For an instant I was filled with an impulse to retrieve the contents, to rinse them off in the sink, to restore them. As I stood staring, I knew that the reason that Mike kept giving us these things was not because he thought we would use them but because he couldn’t bear to see them the way that I saw them in that moment, butting up against the things that no longer had a use in our lives. The truth was that those items belonged in the trash; if knowing this struck a note of sorrow in me, I could only imagine what it did to Mike. Maybe this was it, I thought. Maybe my job was to absorb this small sadness for the man that I barely knew. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. I removed my foot from the pedal and the black lid fell down, clicking shut.
This piece first appeared on Baltimore Fishbowl.