Where's TED?

  • Derek Roger

A recent TED talk by Kelly McGonigal was an opportunity to demonstrate that the earth is not after all flat.  It was an opportunity missed – instead the talk ended up merely adding to the accumulated misinformation about stress. 

A critique of the two studies the talk relies on would require a blog in its own right, but suffice to say that measuring stress with a single question asking whether people had subjectively experienced a little, a moderate amount or a lot over the past 12 months is about as unscientific as you can get.  The first issue in the talk itself, though, is the revival of the old chestnut about 'good' vs. 'bad' stress.  As usual no clear definition of stress is provided, but the speaker concludes with the new bit of psychobabble, 'making stress your friend'.  What eventually becomes clear is that she's actually talking about pressure.  In the Challenge of Change Resilience programme, the most important distinction we make is between stress and pressure, with pressure being simply a demand to perform.  There is no training programme that will remove it, and it is pressure that gets you out of bed in the morning. 

Pressure you can certainly use, since it is always accompanied by an increase in the physiological arousal that's needed to get things done.  What increases to facilitate the arousal is adrenaline, which is not a 'stress hormone', just a hormone doing what it's designed to do – get you going.  Cortisol increases at the same time, but cortisol is also not a stress hormone.  Amongst other things, it helps to regulate energy as well as having a longer-term impact on immune function.  The  fight-or-flight reaction is normal and needed, but the problem is when it is sustained beyond being useful.  What sustains it is rumination.  Something goes pear-shaped at work, adrenaline and cortisol increase to deal with it.  This isn't stress, provided you return to a resting level afterwards.  If instead you go on and on thinking about the what-ifs and if-onlys, the things that Mark Twain described as the worst things in our lives that never happen, that's what stress is.  Hence our unambiguous one-line definition of stress as ruminating about emotional upset.  All of this only becomes clear by using simple English.

In the TED talk yet another hormone has been added the list of so-called 'stress hormones' – oxytocin.  The main and well established role of oxytocin has nothing to do with 'stress': it is involved in facilitating natal and post-natal adaptation (oxytocin is Greek for quick birth).  It plays a role in regulating inflammation and healing, which it does in interaction with cortisol, and there is some evidence that it regulates emotional bonding – it increases during affection.  It is this last function that the speaker focused on, using the conventional phrase 'social support'.  Oxytocin increases when we feel supported and loved, but the question is, what constitutes social support?  It isn't how many people you know or whether you subjectively feel you've been generous towards someone.  The real issue is whether you can use the available support.  We found in our research at the University of York that this depends on whether or not you can express emotion, which is why emotional inhibition is one of the key measures in our pre-training Profile.  What also contributes to social support is having empathy, which we describe in the programme as detached compassion: having high scores on both detachment and sensitivity.   

Unfortunately oxytocin also regulates pair bonding by ensuring exclusivity, and it increases envy as well as love!  This is the danger of misusing hormones and neurotransmitters to draw often unwarranted conclusions – our physiological systems regulate evolutionary processes that are not necessarily warm and fuzzy.  The problem with psychology is that it is so dilettante, selecting what suits the argument whether or not there really is a genuine biogenetic justification.  So we've ended up with yet more myth-making.  Pressure can certainly be used strategically and effectively ('made your friend', if you prefer psychobabble).  Stress properly defined as rumination is self-evidently and demonstrably not good for you, and the distinction between pressure and stress is not just semantics: the TED talk acknowledged the effect that thinking in a particular way will have on your behaviour. 

Here's how to think and act differently: what you have to deal with in your day-to-day life is pressure, so instead of saying how stressed you are, say how much pressure you're dealing with.  That gives you the opportunity to wake up out of the nightmare of rumination, regain control of your attention, and to view the problem from a detached perspective.  Any stress that has been added to the problem – in other words, ruminating about the all the emotive worst-case scenarios – can then be seen as just the thoughts that they are, and can be let go.  You don't let go of pressure, which is the demand to solve the problem, but you can't solve anything with rumination.  Technology, entertainment, design?  Well, entertainment.

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