To Stress or Not to Stress?

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  • February 13, 2017



Stress was once my foe but now, for the most part, I’ve made it my friend. I recall a piece of sage advice I got about 10 years ago from a mentor of mine. When something bad happened, he would outwardly ask himself the question, “How do I want to react to this?” The simple act of asking that question does a number of useful things. It creates space between stimulus and response, for one, and it creates a choice: Do you want to view this stressful moment as a threat, or as a challenge and an opportunity to improve, adapt and grow? How one perceives a stressful situation can have a big impact not just on resolving that particular situation, but also on your long-term health.

I recently read a book called The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, by Kelly McGonigal. McGonigal, a psychology instructor at Stanford University, makes the assertion that stress can hurt you only if you believe it can. This is a powerful concept; most of us have been taught our entire lives that stress is something to be avoided and endured.

When people ask me why I choose to do things that they consider highly stressful — like Ironman, all-day fasting, breath holds or cold exposure — I explain that I see all of these challenges as opportunities for me to grow and become a healthier, wealthier and wiser (thank you B. Franklin) individual.

Avoiding stress altogether is impossible. Instead, it can be useful to build what McGonigal calls your “stress management quotient.”

A Study

In the book, McGonigal references a study that tracked the stress experienced by 30,000 adults in the United States during one year. Participants were asked whether they thought stress was harmful. By later cross-referencing their results with public death records, the researchers found that, while people who experienced significant stress during that year had a 43 percent risk of dying, that was only true for those people who thought that stress was harmful for their health. Further, people who experienced a lot of stress, but didn’t see it as harmful, had an even lower risk of death than those who dealt with little stress but considered it harmful.

What McGonigal infers from the data is that, during the study, 182,000 Americans died from the belief that stress is bad for you, making it the 15th largest cause of death during that year. While it’s true that correlation and causation are not the same thing and that other factors may have influenced the test results, I think deconstructing the notion that stress is always bad has a lot of merit, and possibly some significant benefits for health and happiness.

How the Body Reacts to Stress

The body has a simple response to stress: It engages your secondary nervous system, triggering your fight/flight/freeze response. Basically, your body isn’t smart enough to realize that an impending deadline and a crouching tiger don’t represent the same level of threat; it recognizes them as the same and reacts in the same way. It is, however, possible to overcome that reaction.

I remember watching Tom Brady in the Super Bowl deal with his own stress reactions. He experienced the same increased heart rate, shallow breathing and release of adrenaline that we all do, but he was able to use his awareness, confidence and experience to overcome that reaction. The typical response to stress occurs because we perceive a threat. What the science is now telling us is that a big part of that reaction is perception. If you believe stress is bad, then any occurrence of stress is a threat; this causes your blood vessels to constrict, which is typically linked to heart disease. If you tend to embrace periods of stress as challenges to overcome, then you simply don’t perceive the threat; the fight/flight/freeze response doesn’t occur, or is lessened. Your blood vessels dilate instead, which has a number of positive health benefits.

Caring Creates Resilience and Increases Longevity

According to McGonigal, stress makes you social. When you’re stressed, your body releases oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle” hormone. It’s also a neurohormone that fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts by priming you to do things that strengthen close relationships. It enhances empathy, and even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about. When your body produces oxytocin, it’s motivating you to seek support. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.

One of oxytocin’s main roles on your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from stress. Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory; it helps blood vessels stay relaxed during stress by helping your heart cells regenerate. In short, this stress hormone strengthens your heart, and you recover faster from stress when you reach out to others.

In another study, 1,000 adults ages 13-94 were asked, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year and how much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbors, etc.?” These results were cross-referenced with death records over the next five years and, while increased stress factors did correlate with an increase in death rates, it did not among people who spent time caring for others. In short, caring created resilience.

Your Perspective on Stress

Do you remember, back in high school or college, the feeling before a test? I remember, in the mornings before big tests like the SAT, I had all the normal feelings of butterflies, sweaty palms, increased heart rate and so forth, but I always had confidence that it was going to work out. McGonigal says that, when you choose to think of your stress response as helpful, you create a biology of courage.

Reflecting on Stressful Situations

The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, try reflecting on the situation and running through a few of these mindfulness exercises.

  1. Ask yourself, “Is this a challenge or a threat?” Most of the time, you’re dealing with a challenging situation rather than a true threat to yourself, and focusing on overcoming the challenge can help you push past your fight/flight/freeze response.
  2. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is your body preparing you for the challenge, ensuring you have all the tools you need to handle it.
  3. Find ways to connect with others. Be aware that everyone experiences stress. Knowing you’re not alone, and that others understand what you’re going through, can make it easier to reach out.
  4. Find ways to help others. Building and reinforcing connections not only focuses you on something other than your own problems, it also creates a support network you can call upon in times of stress.
  5. Think about what advice you would give someone else in your situation. I find this incredibly helpful; it helps me become more aware of my biases and blind spots, and create some distance from the situation.
  6. Talk to others you trust and open up about your struggles. Talking helps you process what you’re going through, and others might be able to help.
  7. Connect with your purpose and values (or Set Point, as we like to call it at Learning House). By reaffirming the things that are important to you, you can put the stressful situation in perspective and make it seem less scary.
  8. Seek out controlled stressful situations. If you don’t use your muscles, they atrophy. Being able to deal with stress is the same; practicing dealing with stressful situations will prepare you for the real thing.

Stress Is Harmful, Except When It’s Not

For the most part, we as a society have moved beyond asking “Is stress harmful?” to asking “How harmful is stress?” McGonigal tries to bring us back to the former question, though, and asks a follow-up: “Can stress be helpful?” She answers with the following statements:

  1. Stress increases the risk of health problems, except when people regularly give back to their communities.
  2. Stress increases the sense of dying, except when people have a sense of purpose.
  3. Stress increases the risk of depression, except when people see the benefit of their struggles.
  4. Stress is paralyzing, except when people see themselves as capable.
  5. Stress is debilitating, except when it helps you perform.
  6. Stress makes you selfish, except when it makes you altruistic.

She tells us not to focus on whether stress is good or bad, but rather whether you believe you have the capacity to transform stress into something good.

Admiral Jim Stockdale, who I’ve discussed before, was the highest-ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. He was tortured more than 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973. Jim Collins’ book Good to Great quotes Stockdale: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” This principle is called the Stockdale Paradox and reminds us that, in the worst possible of situations, one individual’s ability to believe that he could cope with whatever stress came his way proved to be true.

Stress is most likely to be harmful when three things are true:

  1. You feel inadequate to overcome it.
  2. It isolates you from others.
  3. It feels utterly meaningless to even try.

How you perceive stress feeds into all three. According to McGonigal, accepting and embracing stress can transform these states: self-doubt becomes confidence, isolation becomes connection and despair becomes purpose.

How do you deal with stressful situations? What techniques do you use to keep yourself from becoming overwhelmed by them?

About Todd Zipper

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