The Benefits Of Discomfort

About a year ago, psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal gave a TED Talk on “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” which has now been viewed 6 million times. To paraphrase, McGonigal said this: Stress can kill you, but only if you believe stress is bad for your health. If you don’t believe it’s bad for you, stress won’t kill you.

Which is quite revolutionary, but it wasn’t the part of the talk that I frantically transcribed as I was listening a few weeks ago, then rewound it and listened again to make sure I got it right. After the talk, the host asked McGonigal: How does this apply to people who are, for example, choosing between a stressful job and a non-stressful job? She said:

“One thing we know for certain is that chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. And so I would say that’s really the best way to make decisions, is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

In the past century Americans have developed many ways to remove life’s discomforts and become more “civilized,” and now we can have things like central air conditioning, $3,000 mattresses, and $1,500 reclining chairs. But all along, the pendulum was swinging the other way for people who went back out into the mountains and woods to sleep in the dirt, get sweaty, get rained on, and maybe spend a night shivering and waiting for the sun to come up.

In the adventure world, we see a billion examples of this: climbers who live out of cars for months or years at a time, ordinary people who spend six months thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or PCT with ultralight packs, others who spend three weeks hauling gear and sitting in tents waiting for a weather window for a summit attempt. And we all have those moments ourselves: whether we’re about to puke from the exertion of climbing a thousand feet on a bike or a set of crampons or pair of running shoes, or getting blasted in the face with 40 mph-wind-driven snow, or freaking out about falling above a piece of not-so-great gear. We’re not doing it so we can get a six-pack or a selfie—we must think there’s something else out there.

Cory Richards talks about it in his film A Tribute To Discomfort, in which he describes some of the more uncomfortable moments in his photography career, including the avalanche that almost buried him on Gasherbrum II in 2011. Art Davidson titled his book about the 1967 first winter ascent of Denali “Minus 148 Degrees,” for the low temperature the team experienced in what became a battle for survival, and years later said in an interview, “it’s not just about a mountain in winter, but about having a dream; about taking on a great challenge and then struggling as hard as you can to reach your goal—or to survive.”

During my adult years, learning from people in the adventure community, I’ve tried to make the uncomfortable (or unsure) choice whenever I can, figuring it worked for lots of people I know, so maybe it’ll work for me. When I started writing my first book, I thought of a million different first sentences, but went with one I thought was the most true: “I don’t know if I’m the only one who thinks that when you set out looking for the big answers in life, you gotta be as uncomfortable as possible when you do it.”

Lots of people picked up on Kelly McGonigal’s quote from that TED Talk. It gives some scientific justification to the uncomfortable choices we make in life, from raising kids (which all parents will tell you is no picnic at first but incredibly meaningful), to quitting our job for a new uncertain one, to climbing mountains. Turns out the path to your dreams is a little scary sometimes.

Later, in a great interview with The We Belong Project, McGonigal went on to say:

“Avoiding discomfort is the world’s worst strategy because it requires choosing discomfort. For example, if you choose to avoid situations that make you anxious, you are choosing anxiety, and strengthening anxiety’s ability to control you. If you choose to avoid opportunities that trigger self-doubt, you are choosing self-doubt and convincing self-doubt it is right. … Do you want to feel anxiety while avoiding things that have meaning, or do you want to feel anxiety while you do them?”

-Brendan

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23 comments

  1. “…chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort” – bingo! I’d rather have a lifetime’s worth of “Damn, that was hard!” rather than “Damn, I wish I’d done that.” Great post…as always 🙂

  2. Once again, exactly right. As a therapist, I spend the bulk of my days easing people toward the scary choices. And then, just this morning, I went back to the short MBT trail just near our house promising myself I wouldn’t take on that nasty 100-yard stretch because it was 7:00 in the morning and I hadn’t eaten and had ridden plenty hard in the last two weeks.

    What do you think I did when I reached the fork in the trail?

    Yup; that’s right.

  3. I never thought of it as anxiety winning – I’ll start considering that. I have learned to make decisions about life based on my gut and intuition. If making a decision is creating too much anxiety or too much discomfort I resolve that it isn’t time for choosing, the right option hasn’t presented itself or something within me isn’t ready. I align with the lazy, proactive Toaist more often than not.

    I have embraced anxiouty and discomfort in certain instances where they are welcome part of the adventure. Often these adventures are after long periods of comfort and ‘everything is just fine’. Trekking across Guatemala, living abroad, choosing to start a business. Those are instances where I have said, “bring it! , Test me, change me! Give me the opportunity to succeed! Give me an example of myself I can be proud of!”

    I would have to say, some stress should be embraced, in fact, sought after. While other stress should be avoided. A balance and the insight to choose feels empowering.

  4. Mithridatism is the process of purposely exposing oneself to small doses of poison with the goal of developing immunity to larger doses. A similar concept is the hormetic response, where a small dose of poison – radiation for instance – produces a positive response in an organism. These are examples of physiological hormetism.

    I find the idea of psychological hormetism like those mentioned by McGonigal very appealing. Dosing with discomfort by initiating a conversation with someone whose opinion is 180 degree from my own or by pushing myself to do the last hill-repeat faster than the first, increases my tolerance for discomfort. Dosing myself with chaos by riding a motorcycle across India or volunteering in the Emergency Department at the regional trauma center allows me to up my general tolerance for chaos.

    For the past two years we’ve managed a senior apartment complex, an experience that has been remarkably enlightening. One of the most critical skills lost by those who calcify into old-age is their ability to experience discomfort or chaos. Making things secure, safe, and stable in old age can prove to be their greatest failure. The best thing I can do for future-me is practice being uncomfortable in an unstable environment. Psychological mithridatization.

    Here is an excellent resource for the many ways a person can induce hormesis:
    http://gettingstronger.org/about-this-blog/

  5. Love this! This is evocative of one of my favorite themes from the Odyssey. Odysseus spent twenty years, often painful, trying to get home from the Trojan War. He was a young, arrogant punk with an attitude when he started out, but his struggles helped him grow and become a full man. When he did return he had the maturity, perspective and appreciation to lead a long and good life (which he did).

    Contrast this with Agamemnon who, instead of doing the work (stress) of twenty year to return home took the direct route (about three weeks). And, instead of ruin, the house of Atreus ended in quick tragedy and ruin.

    Good stuff!

  6. Nice read. The “going after what creates meaning’ quote is something that ought to be taught to high school students. Anything that you think is worth doing will no doubt be scary, often difficult, sometimes downright brutal. And we get through these things because we have passion and meaning on our side.

  7. Well said, Brendan! I agree that it’s in our most “uncomfortable” moments that we develop a heightened ability to show ourselves (and “finitude”) who we really are. Conquering these moments also increases our ability to come out the other side when we inevitably find ourselves in sticky situations–which happens to all of us–no matter how good we are at avoidance!

  8. I couldnt agree more. I think sometimes as parents a HUGE mistake is made when trying to make sure our children are never uncomfortable. I did not benefit from having all my problems solved for me, when I was younger, so as a parent I make sure that girls experience conflict, problems, challenges, etc…and see that they can overcome anything. PLUS they realize how awesome they are after they have accomplished something difficult.

    We have cycled 800 miles in the last 6 weeks (my husband and I, plus our two girls ages 6 and 9) and everyone asks them if they are having fun. OF COURSE!!! they say. Sure, we have had plenty of hard/exhausting/painful/endless/starving/grouchy/tired moments, but through it all we are working together as a family to accomplish whatever the goal for that day is. I have met so many people who have said, “Too bad more parents arent out there doing this kind of stuff with their kids.” But I get a lot of comments about how crazy we are, too.

    We have spent 95 hours on our bikes, sometimes having to push and walk the bikes up the sides of crazy steep roads, but to these girls it is just another normal day. These girls are tougher at 6 and 9, then I was at 25. I will not be solving their problems for them, because they can do it themselves. Learning how to deal with discomfort at a young age might seem extreme to some, but I will tell you….these girls are going to go places in this world

  9. Love this post. It really strikes at the satisfaction gotten by creating meaning through discomfort and also the comfort that brings. Thanks for the insight, a great pleasure to read.

  10. This past Thursday morning I rode through a freezing cold thunderstorm on the day’s route for RAGBRAI. I was cold, soaked, hungry, and my bottom hurt from wearing my pack full of gear (self-supported). It’s the most uncomfortable I’ve been in recent years, but I don’t regret it. I have a 20 mile run scheduled for tomorrow. Pain, discomfort, stress, these are the partner emotions to joy, love, bliss, and so on. It’s how you KNOW YOU’RE ALIVE MAN!! Just take an aspirin, rub some icy hot in and do work.

  11. Most excellent post Brendan! Especially amen to following: “… chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.”. Also thanks for the reminder about the impressive “A Tribute To Discomfort”.
    What just crosses my mind right now is the linguistic hint within “discomfort”: in a way it might be all things that are beyond a particular “forte”, so challenging or better say overcoming discomfort may actually strengthen our abilities on so many different levels…

  12. The only way to grow is to be uncomfortable. It stretches us past where we thought possible and then we learn what we can do and what is important.

  13. This is one of my favorite pieces I’ve read on your site. I can relate so well to that feeling of looking a tough choice in the eyes, taking a deep breath and diving in head-on. It’s hard to feel certain that you’re always making the right choices, but as you quoted Kelly McGonigal, “…[the] best way to make decisions, is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”
    Thanks for this!

  14. Thanks Brenden, for this thoughtfulness. It’s funny in our culture to become so settled in, so comfort seeking. I observe it in myself too, just standing at the gas pump when the temperature has dropped suddenly here in northern New Mexico and I’m not dressed properly. I can’t wait to get back into the warmth of my car. What about awareness, what about dropping in and experiencing the feeling of the cold, the experience of differentiation? Colder, warmer. Staying free of the judgment. Fleeing from discomfort only lands us in the arms of “good” and “bad” thinking, and from there, we’re doomed to see the truth of our rustic nature. Many blessings, MJ

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Article by: brendan