I’m a little stressed out writing this report from the Fortune Brainstorm Health conference Tuesday afternoon in San Diego. That’s because I just heard a great talk from psychologist and author Lisa Damour. She talked about why stress and its sibling, anxiety, are normal, healthy, and even useful parts of daily life. I’m on the hook to tell you about it, though, and what Damour has helped me understand is that it’s okay for me to feel stressed about that.
I feel better already.
Stress, says Damour, “happens any time humans are operating at the edge of their abilities.” This includes doing new things like taking on a new project, moving into a new house, and welcoming a baby into your life. Stress, in fact, is a lot like weightlifting. Going through it makes you stronger. But you also can’t be stressed all the time any more than you can lift weights continuously. It’s important for people to restore themselves—to de-stress, in other words—and everyone does that differently.
But the mistake is to assume that just because it hurts, in the same way rigorous exercise hurts, that it’s bad. Says Damour: “If your life is interesting at all you’re going to have stress.”
It’s a similar story with anxiety. It is, says Damour, “a normal, healthy, and protective mechanism designed to keep you safe.” She has a funny story to illustrate this. Cave dwellers who felt anxious encountering a saber tooth tiger ran for cover. The ones who didn’t experience anxiety in the presence of a vicious beast haven’t passed on their genes to us.
Damour treats teenagers and relays her knowledge to them in a delightfully direct way. When a patient complains of anxiety about an upcoming test Damour asks if they have studied for it. If the answer is no she reassures them their anxiety is warranted. Study, she says, and the anxiety will diminish.
I’m done with this article now and am off enjoying some restorative activity. I hope Damour’s perspective has made you feel a little better, too, about your stress and anxiety.
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