Stress is pervasive in most cultures in the world. Many people are very fearful about what stress can do to their health. I used to feel this way too because I developed an autoimmune disease from stress and I suffered from chronic fatigue for three years. This affected my life deeply, and resulted in lost income, relationships and my confidence. I tightly coupled my identity with my job so when I wasn’t able to work anymore, I struggled to know who I was and whether I was worth anything.
I wrote a book, Avoiding Burnout, about how other people can prevent such a serious health collapse. I wanted to help people and I thought I was serving the world with this warning. What I didn’t realize was that I was furthering this fear and dread that popular media propagates around stress. An important thing happened to shift my thinking: I read Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress. This book altered my path in that it showed me the research around positive stress and helped me to understand that embracing stress is a much healthier way to live.
I wrote my second book, Harnessing Stress, which is due for release in November 2019, about these lessons that I learnt. I interviewed many people and surveyed almost 300 people about what causes their stress and what they do about it. Each interview offered me wonderful insights that I was able to share with my audience. I enjoyed the process of writing the book so much and I learnt a great deal from everyday people. One lady told me how she watches a TED talk and runs on a home treadmill for 30 minutes every day before work. She feeds her brain and exercises her body at the same time. Another lady told me that she schedules a rest period at 2pm every Sunday and notifies her family. This is her chance to unwind and prepare for the week ahead. I’m so grateful to these wonderful people who shared their insights with me.
Kelly McGonigal’s book was also able to shift my thinking around stress. One of the fascinating things she writes about is what’s known as the challenge stress response. This is what we feel before a deadline or the nerves before a presentation or speech. This feeling is happening because something we care about is at stake. We want to perform well and to serve our customers or our audience fully. The body releases hormones to help us push towards the deadline or speech and help us to achieve. The challenge response is one of the many positive ways that stress helps us to reach for our dreams. Now that I have this awareness, I have gratitude for my physiology and how it supports me through difficult times.
In my journey through a stress-induced illness and towards a life of thriving, I’ve learnt that I cannot escape stress. It is part of life and adversity will happen from time to time. In accepting and embracing these chances to learn and grow, we are equipped to better handle the stress in our lives.
Can you recall a time when stress helped you?