Stress is a part of daily life that most of us would prefer to live without. Whether it's family, work, finances, health, or another kind of stress, it seems that no matter what happens, stress is always just around the corner, if it hasn't already got its grip on you!
While we can't entirely avoid it, we're told time and time again that we need to manage stress if we are to avoid the ill effects of it on our bodies. and when we can't do that, we stress about stress itself!
How do you feel about stress? Would you change how you think about stress if you knew it could reduce the negative effects of stress on the body?
Read on to find out!
I’m going to give you a few statements in two groups, and I’d like you to think about which of the two groups you agree with more...
1. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality
2. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity
3. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth
4. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided
1. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality
2. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity
3. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth
4. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilised
The first lot are statements that support a ‘stress is harmful’ mindset and the second one is a ‘stress is enhancing’ mindset. Which did you most relate to?
Before reading the book 'The Upside of Stress', by Kelly McGonigal, it was a resounding ‘Stress Is harmful’ from me!
I could see how parts of both mindsets could be true in certain situations, but for the most part, I thought stress = bad, no stress = good, nothing will change my mind!
I'm happy to report that was I wrong... Stress isn't entirely the devil we've been taught to fear!
I’ve been running my business for the past 7 or so years.
When I first started my business, I knew I was in for a challenge. Knowing that I’d never run a business before and my personality type is not what most people associate with the “successful business person” type (back then anyway ;) ), I decided to get some help from a business coach. This coach has a huge success rate helping his client’s businesses reach more than a 6-figure income in a short amount of time.
While I did increase my client base and my income tenfold in my time with
him, I never quite got to the 6-figure mark, and part of the reason for that is
that I had a big fear of stress and burnout.
My view of stress stopped me from reaching my goals. So, you could
imagine, that when I came across this concept of ‘stress is good for you’, I
immediately thought “Yeah right... No way is stress good for you! You
ALWAYS burn out if you have stress in your life. Some people manage stress
better, but most people will ultimately have their body stop them if they don’t
Do you think that frame of mind helped me at all? Nope!
How we perceive stress can impact our mental health.
People who adopt the ‘stress is enhancing' mindset, tend to view
stressful situations as a challenge rather than an overwhelming problem.
They feel more able to rise to those challenges and are better at finding
meaning in difficult situations than their ‘stress is harmful’ mindset
counterparts. They are also less depressed and more satisfied with life.
Those that believe stress is harmful are more likely to distract themselves from the cause of stress instead of dealing with it and avoid addressing the source of the stress.
They can withdraw their energy and attention from the source of the stress
and can turn to substances and other addictions and distractions to hide from it.
In contrast, those that believe stress is enhancing, accept the reality and
presence of stress and then plan how to deal with it.
They make the best of a bad situation and tend to see it as a chance to learn and grow.
The funny thing about stress is that it is still a leading risk factor for mortality
and diseases like hypertension and heart disease BUT, only in people that
believe that stress is harmful.
I know, I know, it’s a bit hard to believe, but there have been studies done on the topic and other studies that show a tangible difference in results between those in the stress is enhancing vs harmful mindsets.
Other Stress Responses
We’ve all heard of the ‘Fight or Flight’ stress response or even ‘Fight, Flight or
I don’t know about you, but I was under the impression that these were the
only responses we had when it came to stress.
I was also under the impression that it was an outdated leftover from the
caveman days when we had to fight predators to survive, and that it’s not
all that relevant or useful to us in today’s society.
I believed that all it did was help us survive in real life-or-death situations
but at work or at home when our life was not under threat, all it does is
make us ill.
Again... I was wrong!
So let’s talk about what stress is and what it does to your body in a stressful situation.
In a typical stress response, the first thing to happen is that your sympathetic nervous system is activated. It signals the body to get you ready for action. Your liver releases fat and sugar into your bloodstream, your breathing and heart rate increase to deliver oxygen and extra energy to your brain and muscles.
Stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol help your body utilise the
energy more efficiently. Your senses heighten and you become more focused on the task at hand, and your motivation to act increases due to the release of chemicals like endorphins, testosterone and dopamine.
What we seem to be taught about stress is that cortisol is the 'bad guy' and because stress triggers cortisol, the stress response is bad. So, when we feel stressed, those of us in the ‘stress is harmful’ mindset assume that all stress is bad except for when it saves your life.
What we tend to forget is that even if the fight or flight response was all we had, the purpose of stress is to prepare us to take action. The thoughts and feelings we have after a stressful event are the brain's way of recovering from that stress and filing away all the parts and pieces of the event to work out what happened and how to act the next time a similar stressful event comes up again.
Think of a small child that loses its mother in a crowd of people.
Let's call him Tom. Tom will experience distress at being separated from his parent and, with his stress response in full swing, will yell out for his mum, run to find her and ask others to help him find her. Assuming Tom has reunited with his mother again, he will probably experience some separation anxiety for a while, and his brain will go over the event multiple times afterwards.
Then, after a while, maybe the next time he goes into a crowded place with his mother, he knows that he needs to be more alert, stay close, and perhaps be more aware of his surroundings, so that if he did get lost again, he knows where he is.
He might even be more confident in knowing that he could handle himself if he needed to.
In this example, Tom’s stress response helped him in a few ways:
Firstly, his stress response kicked in which meant that his body was ready to move faster, to see clearer, and focus better, but it also pushed him to connect with other people in the community to help him.
Later, he learnt that some of his actions led to him losing his mother in the first place, and others led to him finding her again. So he becomes more resilient and also more prepared to handle another similar stressful situation.
Our daily lives no longer consist of only fighting dinner and running away from
ending up as dinner.
The reality is, our bodies have caught up.
When our lives are not directly in danger, stress is there to help us take on a challenge, and it’s there to help us connect with other people. It makes us
braver, more social, more resilient and helps us grow.
Why is this so different to what we’ve been taught?
DHEA is a neurosteroid released during a stress response along with all
the other chemicals I mentioned earlier.
What's special about DHEA is that it kind of counteracts the negative effects of cortisol and, as a neurosteroid, helps the brain to grow after a stressful event. It’s the proportion of cortisol to DHEA that determines the type of stress response we experience.
What some of the research suggests is that how you think about stress (stress is harmful or stress is enhancing) can change the proportion of chemicals your body releases during a stress response.
A 'Challenge response', as it’s known, releases more DHEA, so it increases your self-confidence, motivates action and helps you learn from your experience.
This type of stress is useful whenever you want to take on a challenge. It’s what revs up athletes before a race or game, and it’s what motivates public speakers before a big presentation- if they think of the nerves as a good thing.
The other stress response is a tend-and-befriend response.
Have you ever noticed that you’ll do more scary things for others than you’d do if you were by yourself? That’s because the tend-and-befriend response makes you more courageous, strengthens your social relationships and motivates caregiving.
This stress response releases more oxytocin - the cuddle or connection hormone - which helps us protect our tribe and connect with our people. Secondary to being able to fight or run from predators, the reason humans have survived for so long is that we are social animals. We rely on our communities to help us survive and, in turn, we help our community survive by caring, protecting and providing for them.
All of this is possible thanks to our stress responses. AND we (mostly) get to choose them!
If we believe that stress is bad for us, our bodies react that way too, but if we believe that stress can be embraced and utilised, our body reacts accordingly.
So, the next time you’re stressed, ask yourself, what is your stress helping you do right now?
-Do you need to run or fight to survive (if you do you probably won’t have time to ask yourself these questions!)?
-Do you need to get ready to take on a challenge?
-Or, do you need to connect with people?
Which stress response will best address the current need?
When it’s over, your brain will do its thing and help you analyse and file away all the bits of the event and your brain (and even your heart with the tend-and-befriend response) can grow, bigger and better, ready for the next time.