A lively debate has begun in the stress management community over Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk in which she presents research that indicates it’s not stress that is damaging, but instead one’s attitude toward stress that dictates the damage done to one’s health by stressful situations. To put it bluntly, stress doesn’t kill people, thinking that stress is bad kills people. Volition over physiology.
Can we all be so wrong?
Maybe there’s some middle ground here. It’s no secret that one’s attitude toward a situation, and the strength of one’s will to face it, can very strongly influence the outcome of the situation faced. So yes, stress can wreak terrible havoc on the body and the mind. But, of course, one who faces stress as the positive result of a life intensely lived is less likely to get sick. Will can help us avoid bad results, but it cannot preclude all the negative effects of stress. Maybe in all of the research that proves the negative effects of stress all of the research subjects had a bad perception of stress’ impact. But I’m willing to bet that some people who faced stress with gusto still got sick.
My personal experience is instructive. If there is a strong genetic component to bipolar disorder, then my brothers and sister share my predisposition toward the disease. But only I have it. Yet, I think I’m the most optimistic one of the bunch, and I see opportunity in every challenge. During my twenties, looking back, I had what can be identified as a couple of manic episodes. But they took little negative toll on my life. As I approached thirty, I was a fast rising sales executive traveling constantly, chasing down ever more difficult goals, consumed fully by my work. I loved every minute of it. I had never faced stress like that in my life, and I thrived on it. Stress was a key motivator for me, it kept me going. Then it all came apart and I ended up in a psych hospital. Good attitude, bad result.
Stress had precipitated the expression of bipolar disorder. Some believe that all mental illness is a stress response. The result of this period of stress in my life seems to be the reason why my predisposition to bipolar disorder was triggered. And it was what I consider to be positive stress that did it. Mood disorders can of course worsen as one faces death in the family, job loss, or the stress of physical illness. But anyone with a serious affective disorder knows that even the stress of very positive events can trigger mania or depression. Many people have broken down over a pending wedding, beginning a new job, or having a child.
Then there’s the period of recovery. Here I think will is key. One must expect improvement in order to achieve it. I faced the challenges of bipolar disorder positively and got better. Today it has little impact on my functioning. However, getting to this point took five more hospitalizations and some terrible mixed episodes. Managing stress, and yes, facing stress positively, has been as important as any medication I have taken or therapy I have engaged in.
So, years later, did the stress kill me? No. I would be included in the research McGonigal cites as one who reinforces her hypothesis. I have a good attitude toward stress and I did not die. But such a simple metric ignores the work involved, the quality of life, and the setbacks along the way. So, is McGonigal right? Yes, and No. Her Ted Talk is provocative and the research outcomes included worth considering. Yet it may fall a little too heavily on the side of blaming the victim. We can’t just will the negative effects of stress away. But we can’t face the challenge of poor health passively, or negatively, either.