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Stress vs. Comfort? Can Stress Be Good for You?

11/24/2013 06:52 pm ET | Updated Jan 24, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

When I think of the word stress it makes me nervous. The word itself evokes anxiety and makes me think about all the things I could worry about and that could possibly go wrong. But after listening to Kelly McGonigal's TEDTalk, "How to Make Stress Your Friend?" I'm recalling the most stressful experiences in my life and I'm trying to perceive them differently, in a more positive light: I'm negating the worldview that stress is a killer and is important to avoid like a plague; and adopting the view that stress is a necessary part of life and a catalyst for becoming fully self-actualized.

When I was 17 years old, I left my comfortable home in an affluent Midwestern suburb to live as a foreign exchange student in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in a foreign country. I lived in an apartment complex with no elevators, no dishwashers and one washer and dryer for 300 families. The tile floors were always cold and the rainy winter days there seemed endless. I learned to wash my cloths by hand in the bathtub and since water was so costly, I trained myself to wash my waist-length hair in less than five minutes.

At that time there were no cell phones and the Internet didn't exist so for six months I had no contact at all with my family or friends in the U.S. I had no relatives there so I needed to "man up" to the fact that my ability to adapt and create a life for myself was one hundred percent up to me. At age seventeen my need for friends was intense and not knowing a soul was, needless to say, a bit stressful.

To add to my stress, I didn't speak the language, had no familiarity with the monetary system nor the transportation system and was expected to traverse the country for camping excursions and touring with my American counterparts and had no formal guides to assist us in our travels. One more challenge that created stress was my host family. Of all the families in the city I lived, I was housed with the ones who spoke the least (or worst) English.

I'd occasionally sneak out without their approval and venture to parties and to the beach. But that too was stressful, as I was challenging their parenting ground rules. -- Beth Kuhel

Unlike the parents of other exchange students from my American group, these parents were overly protective of their daughters; so when all my friends would make plans to meet at the beach (which was only an hour away by bus) or at a local café, I had to follow their strict house rules which often meant declining invitations; that in turn created more stress as it limited my ability to make friends. I'd occasionally sneak out without their approval and venture to parties and to the beach. But that too was stressful, as I was challenging their parenting ground rules; and I when I'd return I had to deal with their scrutiny as I was living under their roof.

First, it made adjusting to college a breeze in the well-groomed, ivy-towered quaint town of Ann Arbor, Michigan where everyone spoke English! Second, it made leaving home less daunting as I was familiar with living much farther from home where long distance communication was costly and not considered normal to do on a regular basis. Now I could call my parents weekly and even drive home occasionally for holidays.

Living abroad and developing fluency in a foreign language required persistence and determination. I made many mistakes along the way (some quite comical like mixing up the name of a taxi with a similar name for the bathrooms and shouting that I needed one at the top of my lungs). If I could develop a sense of humor and adapt it to a different culture, I surely had more confidence I could do this in college in a different state with generally the same culture. Finally, it taught me to empathize with "outsiders" or anyone who moved to this country or my city from a different place.

I've transformed my stressful memories into my medals of honor if you will: They're the treasured stories that offer wisdom to my kids, provide me with insights for my clients, friends and family and provide me with the confidence that I can surpass future challenges.

While left unbridled, stress can break your spirit, but when it's channeled properly toward action, it has potential to bring us closer to each other and gets us to realize our potential for goodness. When you keep stress in check (and allow others to give you support), it can deepen your appreciation for your most important relationships and for the often taken-for-granted privileges you enjoy... like a day outside of the hospital! And most of all, stress when used as a motivator, can help you tackle obstacles and prepare you for the greatest satisfaction which is knowing you're capable of defeating that self-defeating little voice that's saying you are better off being comfortable.

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