Off the beat: Embrace, don’t erase, your stress

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While at home in Southern California over winter break, I encountered a flier posted in a local Starbucks advertising a three-week ”Beat the Stress” class hosted in a woman named Janet’s living room.

“Crush your stress with pummeling zen techniques!” it advertised.

My first thought upon reading it was, “Pummeling? Zen is pummeling?” The irony of suggesting that a meditation class will crush, beat or pummel anything seemed to have been lost on Janet or simply remained unacknowledged. But it was just this seemingly ludicrous element of Janet’s flier that prompted me to question the strange — and overwhelmingly negative — ways American culture approaches stress.

Look around, and you will find no shortage of colorfully worded approaches to destressing—a term that is notably hip and millennial. We have the bland (“Manage your stress,” “Reduce anxiety,”), we have the cute and cheeky (“Make the stress less!”) and we even have the oddly personifying (“Calming down your anxiety” and “Winning against worrying”).

It’s impressive. But there is one approach that hasn’t made it through the popular circuits.

What about appreciating your anxiety?

Or, more interestingly, what about giving stress a hug? A thumbs-up? What about being inspired by that tightness in your chest, those beads of sweat on your forehead?

Maybe you’re not at that point yet. I’m not. Appreciating anxiety is not our first instinct — and for a good reason. First, it’s uncomfortable. Moreover, we’ve been taught anxiety either creates or exacerbates almost every poor health condition, makes us go gray earlier, makes us die at a younger age. This is not hard to believe; I’m pretty sure I have lost a few golden years toiling through frequent last-minute essays and all-night study sessions throughout my academic career. And I am not inclined to give stress a hug and walk hand in hand into the sunset with it. Appreciation? Ha, no.

But my perspective changed over the break while lying in bed and watching TED Talk videos on my phone. I came across a segment from a talk in Edinburgh, Scotland, by psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In the lecture, McGonigal cites a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the effects of stress on health. Unsurprisingly, the study stated that those who experience more stress are more likely to have a premature death. But this was not all: The study also said it was not simply the experience of stress that led to these early fatalities but also the way the participants viewed stress in relation to their health. Those who viewed their stress as having a negative impact on their health were found to have a 43 percent increased risk of premature death.

These findings shocked me at first. Did knowing the truth about the impact of stress make that impact worse? On further thought, it made sense. When we worry about how bad anxiety is while we are experiencing that anxiety, it only creates an additional problem and only makes us more anxious.

The effects are not limited to health. Last year, a friend complained to me it was taking her twice as long to study for organic chemistry because she was so focused on the stress she was feeling about the class. And I have often put off finishing an essay not because I was procrastinating or I had something else to do first but because I was trying to calm myself down about it — I would get up to take a walk or call my sister to talk through my anxiety. The issue: Both my friend and I turned our stress into another problem, yet another task to be dealt with, and it bogged us down.

If, then, viewing stress as a problem is not working, perhaps we need to do a little mental gymnastics. Perhaps the best way to address the problem of stress is not to think of it as a problem but to try to find positive ways to reimagine it. It helps me — and McGonigal too — to think the anxious feeling is helping us, throwing our body into high gear so we can get through and succeed.

Not all stress can be viewed this way. Generalized anxiety — stress without a cause — and post-traumatic stress make us nervous without good cause.  The stress I am discussing is reactionary stress resulting from a difficult situation or test — the type stress you might face before auditioning for a theater class or giving a speech in public.

This is not to say we shouldn’t try to reduce the stress in our lives. Prepare for that audition. Start writing that essay early. Take a meditation class — maybe not Janet’s —and remove the harmful people from your life. Take medication, if necessary. But next time you’re getting that nervous feeling, try to sit back and remember that stress is not all bad — in its own unpleasant way, stress wants to help.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

Contact Savannah Luschei at [email protected].