Friday, September 13, 2013

Stress management through stress appreciation

image: SRxA Word on health
We know that exercise helps us deal with stress, and in a recent post, I relayed how this happens inside the brain (hint: regular exercise keeps the brain calm by activating certain neurons that keep mice, at least, from leaping into that hyped-up, fight-or-flight state).

In the face of challenge, threat, or fear, our bodies react: we tense up, we breathe faster, our heart starts pounding, we break out in a sweat, we are hyper-aware of what's happening around us. On their own and over a short period, these symptoms don't hurt us.

But is stress bad for us over time? That apparently depends on how we view it - it's literally the thought that counts. To watch a cool TED talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend, read on.

This fascinating talk by Kelly McGonigal will be inspiring and welcome news for anyone with a high-stress job, family, hobby, or other issue. A professional revelation led her on a quest to determine the full story about how we perceive stress. “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? Here the science says yes,” says McGonigal. Have a look:

Embrace your stress response

McGonigal's talk reflects findings from recent studies involving thousands of participants in the US and UK that show that people who reported having high levels of stress AND who believed that stress was harming their health had a much higher risk of dying prematurely than people who either felt low stress or felt high stress but did not see that as a bad thing.

In other words, maintaining the correct attitude toward the stress response -- seeing it as an energizing, rather than anxiety-producing, reaction -- may be more important to our physical and mental well-being than the amount of stress we actually experience.

image: DrKevinLentin

I'm cold all the time, and I can calmly appreciate that the shivering and goosebumps that happen when I get really cold are my body's physical responses to help deal with the potential stress of cold surroundings. We should view our stress response (heart pounding, breathing faster, etc) the same way, as our body's attempt to improve performance and manage a threatening situation.

Here's why: when we are stressed, our hearts beat faster, but blood vessels to our skin, intestines and kidneys constrict to send more blood to our muscles. Over time, this may lead to cardio-vascular problems and may be why high stress = high blood pressure = heart disease.

If we can view the stress response as a means to prepare us to meet the challenge at hand, rather than a sign that we aren't coping well with pressure, we can reduce the dangerous connection between stress and coronary heart disease (CHD) often associated with high stress levels. In these studies, the blood vessels of study participants trained to see stress as helpful actually stayed relaxed, as they do when you feel courage or joy.

"One of the important messages from our findings is that people's perceptions about the impact of stress on their health are likely to be correct." said Dr Hermann Nabi, principal author of the UK study.

Oxytocin: the love / stress recovery hormone

McGonigal's journey into the positive side of stress also led her to understand the importance of oxytocin, the "love hormone" or "cuddle hormone". It's a substance that is released not only when you hug someone but also when you experience stress, a time when you will probably need help from trusted friends and family.

Group hug for maximum oxytocin release
image: A Cute A Day

While adrenaline pumps your body up to respond to challenge, oxytocin focuses your brain's social instincts and makes you more willing to seek support from and to help people you care about.

The release of oxytocin protects your cardio-vascular system by relaxing and helping heart cells recover from stress-related damage (wow!), and guess what? Connecting with other people and caring for others both produce a natural resilience to stress - you release more oxytocin and recover more quickly when you reach out to your loved ones and when you help others. So go ahead!

Stress management and evolutionary fitness

big mean elephant stress
big mean ancestral stress inducer?
We should remember that we're here because generations of our ancestors, who faced all sorts of stress over the years, were able to not only survive but successfully raise kids who could survive (Good Biological Fitness!).

As a species, we've evolved to deal with stress, so it makes a lot of sense that the natural reactions of our bodies to stress must be helpful in meeting the challenge in front of us.

These days, that challenge may mean taking an exam or speaking in public, rather than facing a big mean animal or invading hordes from Mongolia, but interpersonal relationships with family, friends, and co-workers have probably been a source of stress for several millennia.

So it seems that we should take advantage of the mechanisms our bodies have evolved to deal with stress, rather than suppress them or consider them a weakness. Plus it just sounds better to say "I got fired up" instead of "I totally freaked out" - right?

To read about the studies on stress perception Dr. McGonigal refers to in the talk, have a look here, here, and here (UK study).

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