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.
And fortunately, for all of us, the human brain is hardwired with these higher level capacities. Things like curiosity and creativity and collaboration that allow us to use stress and actually adjust and adapt and grow stronger.
But when we’re constantly stuck reacting, those same capacities start to go offline.
I’m sure, you’ve all heard of your stress response being described as what I call the Four F’s of fear: Fight, Flight, Freeze or Faint.
But despite what we’ve all been taught, this is not our stress response. These are stress reactions.
A response is what happens when we actually stop and assess the situation and then decide how we want to proceed. And it may not seem like a big difference, just a word, react versus respond. But the words we use actually shape the way we see our experiences.
And in this case, a reaction is something that happens to us. And a response is something that happens for us. And our greatest asset for survival as humans is our ability to stop, and think, and respond.
See, the lion may fight and the cheetah may run. The cat may freeze and the mouse may faint and play dead. These animals are accessing their greatest resources to help them survive a potential threat.
But as humans, when we do that, not only do we internalize this unused energy and information, but reactions just lead to more reactions.
So, we wake up in the morning feeling like we’ll never have enough time to get it all done. And we constantly multitask – putting out fires, pushing around papers and going and going and going until we finally get to the end of the day, tired and wired at the same time, and unable to sleep.
And then when we do have a moment to catch our breath, we react to this strange sensation of stillness by quickly grabbing our digital devices to kill time.
And my least favorite of all is this awful game of email ‘hot-potato’ that we all seem to play with each other. Where we sense that we’re never going to have enough time and so we just react by batting emails around and around and around… and wasting time and energy and never thinking about if we need to hit reply all.
And we know better.
So why aren’t we doing better? Why is common sense so seldom common practice?
Well, let’s go back to the shark in the water for a moment.
No matter how many times I tried to convince myself that there is no shark in the water, which is not actually true, or that the shark probably won’t hurt me, which is not necessarily true either. Or that I am a really good swimmer, which is true, but not really relevant in this case.
No matter how many times I logically try to convince myself to respond differently to going in the water, if I’m reacting, my experience is still the same. So the only way I’m actually going in the water is if I sense that I’m safe and I feel interested.
And here’s where we think we may actually find a potential cure for our unmanaged chronic everyday stress. And it’s a hardwired human capacity we’ve all had from the moment we were born that helped us to navigate challenges and change effectively.
And it’s our ability to be curious. Because when we shift to a state of curiosity, everything changes. The primal parts of our brain actually start to calm and quiet down because we wouldn’t allow ourselves to explore if we were actually in danger.
At the same time, the lens through which we see our circumstances changes. And we start to notice patterns of energy and information in new ways that we can use so that it can help us instead of hurting us.
See, if we look at a picture of a brain that’s stressed and compare it to one that’s curious, we see dramatically different images. The stressed brain starts to shut down and protect itself, relying on survival-based reactions that have worked in the past.
But the curious brain is open, interested, willing to look at new possibilities. And from this place we can actually learn from our experiences and even grow from our mistakes.
See, I believe that the more we practice getting into this state of curiosity, the more we can actually develop a new human stress response. So instead of having to fight or flight or freeze or faint, we can practice what I like to call question and consider.
Where we stop? And we ask the important questions, like, why is this really happening right now? Or what is it that I need in this moment?
And then we consider possibilities. Like how might this experience be helping me to grow stronger? Or how might the lessons I’m learning now helps someone else in the future?
See, I believe that the more we practice looking at life through the lens of curiosity, the more flexible and adaptable we can be to an ever changing world. And the more we learn how to use the energy and the information that stress provides us, to actually fuel some sort of positive change, the more we can talk to each other and listen to each other and actually work together to create better solutions for our stressful lives.
And from this state, a state of curiosity, stressing can actually be a blessing. And now when we know better, we’re finally able to do better.