THE PRIMAL SCREAM…*
Last night I witnessed Columbia University’s traditional PRIMAL SCREAM. If, like me, you have no idea what I’m talking about, this scream is a tradition with variants at a number of prestigious Universities – including UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, Cornell, U Penn, and Vassar. At midnight of the Sunday of finals week each semester, students open their windows or go outside and SCREAM blood-curdling, horror-movie worthy screams. It is quite the exhilarating and satisfying experience.The tradition is said to help students release their pent up anxiety and stress about exams.
It’s finals week at Columbia so stress levels are high and libraries are packed at all hours of the day and night with students finishing papers and cramming for tests.In fact, this has been an especially stressful year in my life. I’ve been working 60-80 hour weeks with an amount of responsibility on projects that has left me exhausted and anxious more than I’d like to admit. I’ve seen it affect my sleep, diet, and mood in negative ways. Which is why the following TED talk is so important.
As discussed in Kelly McGonigal’s TEDGlobal2013 talk, “How to make stress your friend,” McGonigal explains that despite what we’ve been told, stress is NOT the enemy. In a recent Pew study, results suggested that it is not the experience of stress but instead the belief that stress is bad for your health, that leads to death and other negative health outcomes. In other word, it is not stress itself but rather how you think about it, that leads to poor health.
Changing your attitude towards stress can change your body’s response to it. When we’re stressed we have a clear physiological response: our hearts beat faster, we breathe faster, we sweat. And our minds interpret these as negative signs of anxiety.
McGonigal asks, what if you view these changes as signs that your body is energized and preparing itself for a challenge? In a study at Harvard, researchers found that participants who were trained to rethink their physiological stress responses as helpful rather than a sign of weakness, were less stressed, less anxious, and more confident. More importantly, their blood vessels did NOT constrict. In a typical stress response, our blood vessels constrict which, if chronic, can lead to cardiovascular disease. But these participants’ physiological profiles more closely resembled people experiencing joy or courage.
The Social Side of Stress…*
McGonigal also speaks to the social side of stress, specifically the power of Oxytocin. Oxytocin is a stress hormone that makes you compassionate and caring. It motivates you to seek support, to tell people how you feel, to surround yourself with people who care about you. It is, in essence, a built-in resilience feature for stress. And physiologically, releasing oxytocin and giving into its urges – seeking support and love – is even better for your heart health.
As McGonigal concludes,
Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement.You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.
To me, this TED talk gives the PRIMAL SCREAM even more profound meaning. This scream embodies the strength and confidence of the student body to tackle the week ahead. While studying for finals and paper-writing can often feel like isolating and solitary experiences, the unison behind the scream ties students together into a community that can accomplish anything.
So, if you are approaching the next week with anxiety or trepidation, let out a nice long primal scream and change your mindset about stress for a healthier, happier life. Never under-estimate the power of a good rethink…*