How attitude transforms stress

Listen to this inspirational TED talk by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In my earlier post on Voluntary Stress, I wrote about the importance of attitude in how the body and mind respond to stress.   McGonigal’s presentation here  makes a nice connection between the psychology and the hormonal physiology of stress.  Towards the end of the talk there is a very interesting discussion of oxytocin and the social dimension of the successful stress response.

Thanks to Tony Kiel and Marnia Robinson for each making me aware of this great talk.

 

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10 Comments

  1. Nate

    Great talk, Todd. Thanks for posting this. I’m going to pass it along.

    Nate

    Reply
  2. Ron99

    Last year, I read Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct. It does say that ‘feeling bad’ causes failure of willpower, but I’m not sure this is the same as ‘stress’, which can be a vaguely defined concept.

    There is also another section in the book (about an athletic coach) suggesting people’s limits of will-power are alot higher than they think, contradicting other parts in the book where it says will power must be conserved or it will run out..

    I don’t know how her new perspective on stress changes any of her positions on Will-power.

    Reply
    • Todd

      There is also another section in the book (about an athletic coach) suggesting people’s limits of will-power are alot higher than they think, contradicting other parts in the book where it says will power must be conserved or it will run out..

      Ron,

      I read The Willpower Instinct and initially had the same reaction as you did about the apparent contradiction in what she was saying. Ultimately, however, I think this apparent contradiction can be resolved by applying a key principle of Hormetism: gradualism.

      Whenever I strive to increase a certain ability — focal distance, fasting tolerance, running speed — I push myself right to the edge of what I can do and just a bit further. I think of this using a metaphor that George Leonard devised: “The Edge”. There is a fine art in recognizing the limit and pushing the limits. If you push too hard , you deplete your energy and resources. You might suffer injury and setbacks. But if you don’t periodically push beyond your limits, you simply will not progress.

      This is a difficult truth to fathom, but I’ve experienced it personally in several areas: eyesight improvement, weight lifting, running, rock climbing, the ability to fast for longer periods, and learning new (and frightening) new skills in the area of language, music and public speaking. In each case, I can recall where I either pushed too hard, or failed to push hard enough.

      Finding the edge is an art. But it is absolutely crucial to making real progress in any area. A failure to understand this is an abdication of the ability to keep improving.

      Todd

      Reply
  3. Billy

    Her words on oxytocin reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s work, Frankl could observe that the prisoners inside Auschwitz who had sons, husbands or wives to care were more resilient to stress and could survive more years there. When their children, husbands or wives died, the ones left would often get sick and die shortly after. His conclusion? Love is the strongest thing that can happen to a human being. But if we apply McGonigal’s teachings to the situation at hand, which say that oxytocin is released when we interact with people that we care about, we may conclude that their Oxytocin just decreased due to the lack of interaction with their loved ones and they could not bear the suffering anymore.

    Reply
  4. Jokah Macpherson

    I think the studies she cites are more evidence of the Matthew effect. What I took away from this was that if you have a more extensive network of loving and supporting friends and family members and activities that give your life meaning, you’ll be better able to deal with stress and also live longer.

    If you are struggling with achieving one or more of these things, though, and are maybe stressed out about it, there’s not much in the video that’s actionable.

    Also, regarding the first observational study about people who didn’t think they could cope with stress dying sooner, she doesn’t really address the possibility that the subjects were just accurately assessing how well they could cope instead of it being a self-fulfilling prophecy situation.

    I did watch the video at 5:00 in the morning, though, so maybe I missed something – I’ll check it out again later.

    Reply
  5. Nate

    Todd,

    I just saw this article on hormesis, and thought you might be interested:

    http://www.nature.com/nrendo/journal/v8/n3/full/nrendo.2011.158.html

    Hormesis seems to be going more mainstream!

    Nate

    Reply
    • Todd

      Excellent article, Nate. It raises the very interesting issue of why some individuals appear to be resistant to diabetes in the fact of diabetes-promoting diet and lifestyle. And the answer appears to be an adaptive response based upon hormesis:

      …the defense response of pancreatic β cells must be capable of counteracting the damaging effects of metabolic and inflammatory stress. These factors become destructive and diabetes-promoting only when this protective mechanism fails. Diabetes-promoting, lifestyle-induced insults can, therefore, be overcome in a well-functioning individual by responses that counterbalance the damaging stimuli and restore normal metabolic functioning. A deficient capacity for upregulation of protective responses to diabetes-promoting lifestyle factors might be the underlying defect shared by persons with a propensity to develop T2DM, rather than a deficient basal level of anti-inflammatory, antioxidative or other protective mediators. Such defects in mounting protective responses might require challenge by appropriate stressors to become apparent….This response exhibits the characteristics of hormesis, a phenomenon originally described in toxicology whereby exposure of cells, tissues or organisms to low levels of toxin induces resistance to subsequent exposure with high toxin concentrations.

      You’ve given me a great lead for further investigation. I’m going to look at this in some depth. While I’m generally “pro-Paleo”, there is one issue on which I diverge from most in the Paleo community, namely their strong aversion to consuming even a modest amount of “neolithic” foods — sugars, grains, legumes — based on their content of toxins and “anti-nutrients”. While I agree that an excessive consumption of these foods is problematic, I’ve always felt that consuming such foods in modest or intermittent amounts could have hormetic benefits, and might promote adaptive resilience. This article provides some evidence in that direction.

      Thanks for sharing it!

      Todd

      Reply
  6. Tim

    Todd,

    Have you considered applying to be a speaker at the TED Conference? A quick search on the website showed no presentations on Hormesis, and the concept seems right up their alley. I think it would be a great platform to spread the word, and I doubt there is a more qualified presenter than you.

    http://www.ted.com/nominate/speaker

    Reply
    • Todd

      Tim,

      Thanks for the kind words. No, I haven’t thought of nominating myself, but I wouldn’t resist being nominated or invited by others. I’ve spoken at the Ancestral Health Symposium and I’ve enjoyed participating in a number of podcasts and interviews.

      Todd

      Reply
  7. The final study she mentions fails to account for the possibility that people who spend more time helping out their friends could be a casual affect of something that has a more obvious affect on their longevity. For example, let us say that wealthier people spend more time helping out their friends. Wealthier people may also live longer to to better healthcare. The study is not completely conclusive.

    Reply

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