Is stress your friend or foe? - (You may be surprised!)

I am super excited about this TED Talk I want to share with you all, 'How to make stress your friend', by health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal. As a yoga teacher and mindful wellness coach, I'm all about reducing unnecessary life stress, but does that mean there is no place for tension in our lives? Current research shows there is a place for stress and making friends with it is a good idea.

New research out of Harvard demonstrates that it is not stress itself which causes health problems and possible early deaths. Rather, it is the way we perceive stress which is the big issue. What I want to show you is that we can experience the stress response* in a healthy way.

 

* What is the stress response? Follow this link to a clear explanation on the stress response via the Harvard Medical School. As you will see, the stress response begins in the brain and induces a whole-body physiological and emotional response. This response was borne through evolution and serves a very important purpose in our survival, but these days it is often induced in non-threatening situations time and time again, day in and day out. Chronic activation of the stress response has been linked to high blood pressure, anxiety, poor sleep, depression, and more. It is important to understand the role of this stress response, befriend it so to speak, but also to develop personal tools to help counteract the negative effects. 

 

 

Of course that doesn't mean we have free reign to head out and overload our lives with stressful situations thinking it is good for us! No doubt, it is better to try to reduce the amount of stress in our lives as much as possible. However, sometimes we are in situations which really do call for a natural stress response in the body and, if that does happen, research shows it is better to consider this reaction as a normal part of your physiology. Listen to your body, rather than trying to fight it.

Yes, it sounds like a bit of a Catch 22, and in some ways it is. The point is, do as much as you can to reduce stress in your life, but if it does come up, roll with it rather than fight it!

 

If you have or you know someone who has stress-related health issues, have a listen to the link above. It might change your life, and may make you think twice the next time you are stressed out.

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---> For those short on time - and stressed out about it! - here are some of the main points from the talk:

  • For many years Kelly McGonigal preached against stress, considering it our worst enemy, something to be avoided at all costs. She pushed the notion that stress makes us sick, reduces immunity and can bring on preventable illness and death from cardiovascular disease.
  • Her beliefs were dramatically reversed when she came across the results of a longitudinal study in the U.S.A of 30 000 people. The study found that people had a 43% increased risk of dying after a highly-stressed year, only if they perceived that stress as harmful. If they didn't consider it harmful, their risk of dying was even lower than people who only reported a little stress. I know! Crazy right?! So, all this time we have been thinking it is stress itself which is the issue, but it may be the way we look at that stress which really needs the work.
  • Science indicates that if you change your mind about stress and consider the experience in a positive way, your body will listen and act accordingly. This doesn't mean the physical stress signs disappear. Rather, what happens is that you view those physical changes in a positive way, which allows the body to move through the process naturally and comfortably.
  • Key points from the Harvard study: Participants were told that the heart pounding is to energise the body and prepare for action, the increased breathing rate is to give the muscles much needed oxygen. In short, they were told their body is doing exactly what it is supposed to do in a stressful situation. The study found those participants then had reduced anxiety and stress over this reaction and were more confident in stressful situations.
  • The results: In typically stressful situations, the heart rate goes UP and the blood vessels CONSTRICT, a situation which is commonly associated with cardiovascular disease and a possible increased risk of stroke. In this study, after participants learned to be aware and accepting of their stress response, their heart rate still went UP, which is normal, but their blood vessels STAYED OPEN AND RELAXED. This type of physiological response is quite similar to the positive emotions of JOY or COURAGE. Clearly this is a much healthier response for the cardiovascular system.
  • The stress response also releases the famed neuro-hormone OXYTOCIN, known to be the love hormone of the body. Many people do not know that oxytocin is as important as adrenaline when responding to stress. So what does it do in this situation?? 

 

Firstly, oxytocin creates a sense of connection, it makes you crave physical contact. You know when you're all stressed out and all you really want is a hug? Well, good! Your body is working! Hopefully you'll get that hug and your oxytocin will increase even more!

 

  • The other thing oxytocin does is work on helping your body. It is an anti-inflammatory agent, helping the blood vessels stay relaxed and open, as discussed above. It also does incredible things to the heart muscle itself. The heart has receptors for the hormone and the oxytocin helps the heart cells to heal and regenerate from any damage caused to the heart muscle during stress. So it all works in a cyclical, healing way! The stress response is a natural part of our physiology, and we have in-built mechanisms to reduce the damage caused by the stress!
  • Final study: 1000 adults in the U.S.A. ranging from 34 to 93 years of age. The participants were interviewed about the level of stress and kind of stressful events they had experienced in the previous year, and also how much they had been involved in helping out friends, family, or the community. They were followed for 5 years and rates of death were recorded.
  • Findings: For every stressful life event, the risk of dying increased by 30%....BUT! Those who reported caring for other people (family, friends, community), had 0% increased risk of dying. SO...caring created resilience! Yay!

 

The take aways on this...

 

So what does this mean?

Should we run-out and get stressed-out as much as possible in the hopes of increasing our oxytocin levels and possibly getting more hugs?? Obviously not! Though hugs are great - I'm all for extra hugs in your day!

Ultimately, the more you can avoid landing in a stressful situation, the better. This may mean improving your planning or communication skills, working on your romantic relationship, talking to your manager about your workload, or whatever you need to do to help reduce stress in your life. Even doing this though, it is likely we will still come across stress in our lives.

 

In that case, the first thing to do is develop the skills to differentiate between normal stress versus over-reactive stress.

 

There are various techniques available to us, such as mindfulness and meditation, which can give the ability to step back from a situation and evaluate it, deciding whether it really is a stressful situation, if you are over-reacting, or if the situation can be viewed in a different, more positive way.

If the situation calls for some level of unavoidable stress, perhaps one of the best things to do is to accept it for what it is, understand that your body is fuelling you and preparing you for what is coming up, and possibly go seek out a hug from a mate or partner to boost that sense of connection with the outside world.

No mate or partner available? A sense of connection can also be found by heading out to a community sport, grounding yourself with a yoga class, or receiving the healing touch of a full body massage.

 

--->In short, don't fight stress, or perceive it in a negative way. Your body is your friend trying to help you, so roll with it!

 

 

Note: If you are experiencing high levels of stress or illness induced by stress in your life, it is important that you seek external support and visit your GP for advice and medical support. (Dr Google is handy, but information you find on the internet is not a substitute for a face-to-face physical examination by a health care provider!)