Planning for Stressful Moments & the 3 Questions You Should Always Ask Your Doctor

Chris Jackson
Chris Jackson
October 16, 2018
Reading Time: 4 min
Lion, Care, Caregiving, Health, Neuroscience, Planning, Stress, TED Talks, TED Time

You may have noticed that we love technology, education and design. This makes us suckers for Ted Talks. They’re short, accessible, and offer insights and inspiration from innovative thinkers, cutting edge researchers, and passionate practitioners. So, we’re beginning a little series that is seriously called “Ted Time”, where we’ll periodically choose and reflect on an awesome Ted Talk for you to watch and listen to.

As with a lot of things on the internet, “How to stay calm when you know you’ll be stressed” isn’t the most accurate title they could have chosen for Canadian neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin’s fantastic TED Talk. It’s more about “why you should plan ahead for when you know you’ll be stressed,” which is no less interesting or important. While you should definitely watch or listen to it (episode 70 in that list), there are two things I took away from it that I want to share with you.

When We’re Stressed, We’re Stupid

Talks like this one are a great reminder that our brains weren’t initially evolved to make complex, analytical decisions. The fundamental functions of our bodies are the ones that kept us alive when we lived as hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago. This is why we stress.

Our experience of stress is essentially our bodies going into “fight, flight or freeze” mode in response to a threat, or something that may be a threat. You may be familiar with that idea. But Dr. Levitin shares a really valuable piece of information about what our bodies do in fight/flight/freeze mode. Basically, they deliberately make us “stupid.”

When we perceive a threat, whether its a lion in the tall grass or a deadline that is suddenly a few hours away, our brain releases cortisol, which “shuts down” many of our body’s systems – digestive, immune, and (I did not expect this one) libido. If your body is using energy on those things, it has less to focus on reacting quickly and avoiding becoming, as Dr. Levitin puts it, “the lion’s lunch.” And, one of the things that cortisol release makes much more difficult is rational, logical thinking. You know, the exact thing you need to meet that deadline that’s coming fast.

If you’re like me, this explains a lot. The impact stress has on our ability to think clearly is why we need to train ourselves to think ahead, and he goes into more detail on some things we can try. But while he does that, he goes on a very deliberate tangent, which touches on something that we talk about a lot at Spark: the importance of being actively involved in your own health care. Specifically:

There Are 3 Questions We Should Always Be Asking Our Doctors

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash

This continues on a theme Brad reflected on in his most recent blog post (go read it if you haven’t yet) about how we need to balance trusting health experts with thoughtfully questioning them.

Dr. Levitin focuses on three important questions to ask anytime your doctor recommends any kind of medication or procedure, and it seemed so important to me that I’m going to quickly distill it for you:


The NNT refers to the number of people who have to receive this treatment in order for 1 person to be treated effectively. So, for example, if the NNT for a particular drug is 10, that means out of every 10 people who take that drug, only 1 of them will actually be helped by it. This is very important information for us to have when considering any kind of medical intervention. When you watch the video, you will be shocked to learn what the NNT is for the most commonly prescribed drug to lower cholesterol (hint: it’s in the hundreds).


This is the question that many of us generally think to ask, but it’s still essential to mention it. A treatment with possible side effects of “mild dizziness” is a very different consideration than one that could cause “severe migraines”.


How many people who take this particular drug or go through this particular surgery will experience the side effects? 1 in 100? 1 in 10?

The crucial questions that arise from these first three may not always have easy answers. Is this treatment more likely to help me, or harm me? How significantly could it improve my quality of life? How significantly could it reduce my quality of life? In the moment these are potentially stress-inducing questions, which is why he focuses on it as an example of “planning ahead for when you’ll be stressed.”

It’s important to stress (see what I did there?) that none of this amounts to advocating for “DON’T TRUST THE MEDICAL SYSTEM” hysteria. Conspiracy theories, hunches and blanket distrust of medical professionals don’t help us (sometimes they can actively harm us). It’s simply acknowledging that no system is perfect, experts are also humans, and that “medicine is both art and science”. And, to bring it back to Spark’s philosophy, the best care is led by you – bringing your own experience and expertise in “yourself” to balance with a caregiver’s experience and expertise in health care.

Anyway, go check out the rest of the talk and start planning ahead so you don’t get eaten by the lion a.k.a. miss that deadline!

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