By Health & Wellness Editor Kathy Whelan
Stress has a bad reputation. “Stress kills!” we are warned. A majority of doctor visits, we’re told, are stress-related. These well-intended messages are themselves stressful. They can cause us to see stress as an enemy to be avoided at all costs in order to live a mythical stress-free life. In fact, it’s not that simple. Understanding more about stress enables us to approach it differently: to dread it less and even use it to increase our mental and physical wellbeing.
It all starts with fear. Humans, like other animals, have an innate fight-or-flight response that kicks in when we perceive a threat. As stress hormones fill our bodies, physiological changes occur: our heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and the blood flow to our muscles all increase as we become energized to deal with the threat. For an animal, that might be an imminent attack by another animal; for us, a car bearing down on us in a crosswalk on a busy street.
When the danger passes, an animal’s body returns to normal. But with our uniquely human ability to think, we ruminate and worry, turning on the stress response for purely psychological reasons. Done repeatedly, this causes acute stress to become chronic, resulting in damaging bodily wear and tear. No wonder stress has a bad name.
After warning for years about the negative effects of stress, health psychologist and Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal revised her message. A study found that people who had experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying – but only if they also believed that stress is harmful to health. Digging into this, McGonigal became convinced that “when you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” In The Upside of Stress she writes, “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”
Embracing stress – counterintuitive though it seems – can begin when we realize there are two kinds of stress: “eustress” and “distress.” Eustress is “good stress” that has health benefits, while distress is “bad stress” that carries health risks. When we use “stress” as a synonym for “distress,” we overlook forms of stress that energize and motivate us, that support us in pursuing what’s personally meaningful and that help us grow, connect and become resilient.
Here are 4 ways we can reframe stress to gain those benefits:
1. Turn Threat into Challenge
When feeling pressure to perform well – making a presentation, taking a test, meeting a deadline, or competing in sports, for example – we can see stress as providing the energy, physical strength and mental drive needed to do our best. Realizing our survival is not at stake and seeing stress as an ally can not only help us avoid the physiologically damaging effects of stress, but it can also, as McGonigal points out, enable us to learn to trust ourselves under pressure.
2. Invite Growth
Any time we leave our comfort zone, we are bound to feel stress. Moving into the learning and growth zones does not necessarily mean we’ll get to the “panic zone” if we focus on what we want to achieve, why it’s important, and how our body is supporting us. Viewing things this way, we can experience personal or professional growth and expand our comfort zone
3. See the Meaning
Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, points out that we only stress about things that matter to us. Viewing our errands, busy schedules, and daily tasks not as stressful annoyances but as necessary parts of a purposeful life can help us ease stress and cope with difficulties that arise. The key is focusing on why we’re doing what we’re doing.
4. Tend and Befriend
Stressful situations can make us more caring. A Harvard Health article points to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Boston Marathon bombing as times when people felt a need to reach out. If we focus only on our own distress, watching endless loops of TV coverage, we stay mired in fear with the accompanying negative health effects. But when we connect with others, we change the hormonal composition of stress, increasing levels of the bonding hormone oxytocin, and we build resilience.
Not every stressful situation has an upside, to be sure. But recognizing those that offer an opportunity to reframe stress, and practicing new mindsets at those times, can go a long way toward making us stronger and reducing the detrimental effects of stress on our health.
Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises. It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com