Tomorrow, I’m running a half marathon. A lot of people asked me today if I was nervous about it. I am! Only, I enjoy the nervousness. I don’t feel nervous nervous; I feel happy nervous. Having butterflies in your stomach before a race is part of what makes a race fun, it’s what makes crossing the finish line so satisfying. This kind of stress, to me, is the enjoyable, fun kind of stress– the kind that reminds you that you’re alive. I feel the same way about NaNoWriMo. Writing 50k words in an already-busy, holiday-filled month is stressful. But it’s the fun kind of stress! This got me thinking about stress in a new way. I started wondering why I craved certain kinds of stress, but dreaded others. I wondered if there was a way to make the not-fun stress as pleasant as the fun stress.
In her TED Talk titled “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” psychologist Kelly McGonigal talks about a study where a group of participants who learned how to view stress positively performed in stressful situations compared with a group who did not:
“Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, well, they were less stressed out, less anxious, and more confident. But the most fascinating finding to me was how their physical stress response changed.”
She goes on to describe that rather than having constricted blood vessels, the people who viewed stress positively had relaxed blood vessels which, McGonigal says, look “a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.”
When I saw this, I realized that I could (and should) be more proactive about viewing stress in a positive way, not just for writing and running, but also for not-fun stress: waiting at the DMV for five hours, working overtime during holidays, dealing with bureaucracy, not being able to visit my family. Things like that. I could spend all winter long dreading these things. But, instead, I’m going to take a mental step back and say to myself, “I’m stressed out! This is exciting. My palms are sweating and everything. But I’m still alive, and my life is still pretty great.” Then, I’ll roll up my sleeves and get to work.
Check out McGonigal’s full talk here.