When life is two sides of the same coin

The expression “two sides of the same coin” refers to things that seem different but are actually related; tragedy and comedy for example or love and hate. According to The Cambridge Dictionary “violent behaviour and deep insecurity are often two sides of the same coin.” The Longman Dictionary has “great opportunity and great danger are two sides of the same coin.” 

It’s strange, isn’t it? Things that are poles apart seem to be deeply connected. An invisible force that pushes them away but binds them together. There’s a well-known phrase: “never let a good crisis go to waste.” The thing we dread can be the thing that lifts us up. 

Prosperity is not without many fears and disasters; and adversity is not without comforts and hopes.” Francis Bacon, philosopher

Here’s another way to look at sides and coins. We get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re excited. The jittery feeling when we turn a corner and see a loved one for the first time in months. We’re happy, excited, our heart is racing. Not that different from nerves then? That sick feeling that arises when we remember we’re presenting to 1600 people tomorrow afternoon. 

We are hardwired so that stress gets fired straight from our brain to our gut. In his book “Mind-Gut Connection,”gastroenterologist Dr Emeran Mayer writes that “the gut is in fact a theatre in which the drama of emotion plays out.” Gut enthusiasts call it our second brain because it’s connected by 100 million nerve cells. 

Dr Daniel Amen is a neuroscientist and psychotherapist who wrote “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” In this article he talks about nerves and excitement. “As I explain to my patients, it’s the same feeling, but it depends on your interpretation of it.”

Here’s another puzzling thing. Why do we cry when we’re happy? No one quite agrees its purpose, but here we are again – sadness and joy. Two sides of the same coin. Or what about hunger and thirst? They’re different but we often can’t tell them apart. Clinical studies have shown that a third of us think we’re hungry when we’re thirsty. Since thirst signals aren’t very strong, it’s an easy way to put on weight.

This one’s a biggie: Professor Semir Zeki ran a study to find out why love and hate are intimately linked. He wanted to establish why “two opposite sentiments lead to the same behaviour.” Part of the problem is that the same brain circuitry is involved in both emotions. Professor Zeki says it could explain why “hate and romantic love can result in similar acts of extreme behaviour – both heroic and evil.”

All comedy is tragedy, if you only look deep enough into it.” Thomas Hardy

Comedy and tragedy are not so different when we pay close attention. There is a saying that “humour is tragedy plus time.” We’ve all seen this. A comedian tells a joke about a topic that’s still raw. The audience sucks in their breath and the comedian flashes back “what, too soon?”

We can even flip a coin on the topic of stress. Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal has written a book called the “The Upside of Stress”. She looked at the latest research and found stress is not always the villain of the piece. In fact, it can be a valuable resource. It helps us negotiate better and enhances our performance on tests. When they’re stressed athletes become more competitive and surgeons improve their dexterity. McGonigal says “whatever the sensations of stress are, worry less about trying to make them go away, and focus more on what you are going to do with the energy, strength and drive that stress gives you.” 

In her book, McGonigal writes about car-crash survivors. A study found that, after an accident, those with the highest levels of stress hormones were the ones who recovered the quickest. They were also the least likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Let’s return to the presentation you have to give to 1600 people tomorrow afternoon! If you’re anxious before the talk (sweaty palms, dry mouth, fast heart rate), you may feel the need to calm yourself down. But McGonigal says you’ll be missing a trick. What you’re feeling is a “challenge response” which makes you more focused and able to process information more quickly. She says let it do its work – allow yourself to feel “excited, energized, enthusiastic and confident.”

We tend to think that actors, singers and athletes are calm when they’re working. They’re not. They’re just drawing on the resources they get from this “challenge response” to be able to perform at their peak. We mustn’t forget that we feel this way when something is important. If we pursue our dreams and push ourselves to do new things, then of course we’ll feel stressed. We just need to accept that it comes with the territory. If we re-arrange our lives to avoid it, we may miss important opportunities in our careers and lives. 

The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it. Choosing to view anxiety as excitement, energy or motivation can help you perform to your full potential.”   Kelly McGonigal

The take-home message? The stress that we try to avoid is the same stress that allows us to grow: two sides of the same coin.


 This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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