Full text of researcher Heidi Hanna’s talk: How to channel your stress to help you succeed at TEDxSDSU conference.
Heidi Hanna – Keynote Speaker, Author, Health & Performance Consultant
Wow. I’m so grateful to be here with all of you today in my chosen hometown of San Diego, talking about my favorite subject: STRESS.
Now, I know that probably sounds a little bit crazy to you. Not the San Diego part, but the stress part, but it’s true. I actually love stress, but that was not always the case.
See, I grew up with an anxiety condition and I’ve had it since I can remember. It started when I was really young – triggering headaches and then stomach aches, and then quickly turned into panic attacks and actual fainting episodes.
I can still remember several different situations being at doctor’s appointments, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. And I would actually pass out at some point during my appointment.
And then a couple of days later they would call and give me the good news that there was nothing actually wrong with me.
Well, if you’ve ever had something wrong with you and then been given the good news that there’s nothing wrong with you, you know how stressful this can be.
So I figured if stress was my problem, I really didn’t have any choice, but to try to find some sort of cure. And I explored all of the angles, starting with psychology and the nutrition, exercise, physiology and neuroscience.
And no matter how much smarter I became about stress, I still really struggled to get it under control.
In fact, I found myself getting more and more frustrated because I would look at all of this great data and research talking about the benefits of stress and the upsides of stress.
And here I was with all of this great information and I couldn’t figure out how to tap into the benefits without feeling totally overwhelmed by the pressure.
So let me give you a personal example of how this actually shows up in my life.
I moved to San Diego and chose this spot in particular because I love being by the ocean. There’s something just really calming and soothing to me about being near the water. But ever since I was a young child, I have the craziest reaction every time I get just close enough to actually put my feet in the water.
So let me give you an idea of how this happens:
[Heidi Hanna plays the sound of sea waves}
Sounds of wave crashing and I see how beautiful it is, like happy and grateful and relaxed. And then, just as I get close enough to actually put my foot in the water, I start to hear these sounds:
[Plays horrifying sound]
Okay. There it is. This is not a joke. This actually happens to me every time I get close to going in the ocean.
By any chance, is there anyone else who’s ever had this experience before? Well, how about right now, as you hear those sounds, does it trigger any sort of reaction for you?
Well, this is my stress reaction. My fingers start to sweat a little bit and my heart starts to race and I feel like I can’t quite catch my breath. It’s a lot like every time I get ready to give a presentation or get on an airplane actually, but here’s my point:
We all experience stress in different ways for different reasons, but there’s one thing that each of us has in common. The majority of the time, the way that we react to stress is primal, being fueled by the lower-level functions of our highly-developed brain.
What I mean is we experienced a cue like music in this case, that triggers a reaction, well before we label it with any sort of conscious thoughts. And the human brain is designed in a very specific way to process patterns of energy and information in a specific hierarchy:
First sensing. And then feeling. And then thinking, in an effort to try to help us survive.
Ironically, not too long ago, I ended up watching a movie about Steven Spielberg. And they were talking about the movie Jaws and the fact that we’re horrified of the shark that we hardly ever actually see on screen.
The audio team was so talented. They were able to create this horrifying experience solely based on sound alone. And it turns out that many times what we can’t see is way more scary than what we can see.
Well, I feel like a lot of life is like that today. We end up picking up these non-conscious cues from our environment. Some of them obvious like media and technology and our workload, constantly overwhelming us.
But some of them really subtle. Like how busy we are and how we rush around all of the time and how we pass our stress off to one another. It’s like, we’re constantly sensing that we’re not safe and feeling like we don’t have enough time or energy or money to deal with all of the demands in our life.
But instead of actually looking at what’s happening in the water, we just try to build a bigger boat – minimize it, manage it and hope it goes away.
So we minimize stress by blaming it on someone or something else, or we hide and hope that it goes away. Or we justify not doing anything with it because there’s so many people around the world that have it worse than we do. And so we should just let it go.
But we don’t.
Without actually doing something with the energy and information stress provides, we just push it down into our own system, where we start to embody the sensation of stress and something that was designed to mobilize action turns into inflammation, causing internal wear and tear. And unfortunately making us feel sick and tired and too oftentimes to act stupid. And even me.
It’s kind of like we’re taking the stress mess and trying to brush it off to the side and pretend like it’s not there, but we carry it around with us all day long. And if we’re not careful, it spills out to affect everyone around us.
But, what if there is a better way to navigate our experiences of stress?
What if instead of trying to minimize it or manage it away, we actually looked into it and learned from it and then actually used it to fuel some sort of positive change?
What if stressing really is a blessing once we know how to use it for good?
Well, if we’re going to do that, the first thing we need to do is actually stop, take a breath and assess what’s really happening. And understand what it is we’re talking about when we’re talking about this idea of stress.
And the first thing we need to know is that stress is just what happens when demand exceeds capacity. It’s not good or bad, but we could think about it as being like energy potential that we could use in positive or negative ways.
So when I suggest that we try to find a cure for stress, I’m not saying that we try to get rid of it, which is a good thing, because we all know that’s never going to happen, but that we learn how to use it and navigate our experience of stress more effectively.
Because stress itself is not the problem, it’s our relationship with stress that needs to be fixed.