Most any self-improvement article or book will advise you of the perils of stress: sleep disruption, increases in the stress hormone cortisol, cardiac stress, depression, irritability, obesity, relationship disruption, and a tendency to isolate. Chronic stress in particular is correlated to some degree with all of these negative effects and more.
While this all sounds really terrible and like stress should be avoided at all costs, we want you to know about two things:
- there are all sorts of important and positive things that stress does for you and
- your outlook on stress is crucially important and outweighs the actual number of stressors you experience
What possibly can be good about stress?!
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist researcher at Stanford University, has recently been discussing research showing some surprising variables in our physiological response to stress. In addition to increases in the “stress hormone” cortisol, which is part of the sympathetic nervous system getting activated (increasing your heart rate, etc. in the “fight-or-flight” response) – the “love hormone” oxytocin is also released by the body during a stress response. Oxytocin is part of what allows us to feel connection and love for other people. It may at first seem counterintuitive to have oxytocin released in response to stress, but from an evolutionary perspective, it makes some sense. For example, when the enemy is at the gate, after an earthquake, more people will survive if they are motivated to work together. There is value to bonding and feeling empathy for others during times of stress. Additionally, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and helps heart cells regenerate.
Additionally, with the stress response, the body is preparing for a challenge in really important ways: more oxygen to the brain, increased energy levels and cardiac output, etc. The body is preparing as best it can, and with that challenge, comes growth. Think of the example of the stress associated with exercise: a stress is put on the body (doing push-ups, running 5 miles) which signals that more muscle should be built in those areas to get stronger. Repetition of that stress (more exercise) builds more strength.
What grows with exposure to stress? Stamina and resilience. Two qualities that can help you thrive and cope with stressors in the present and in the future. More on resilience in a second.
The power of perspective
Part of the message in Kelly Mcgonigal’s research (see this TED talk) is that knowledge of the positive things happening during a body’s response to stress can have a big influence (and a protective one) on how one thinks about stress. Her research compared people with a positive attitude about stress (“stress is okay, it’s part of life”, “challenges can be good, I’ll learn from this and get stronger”) to people who think their stress is really detrimental (“stress is terrible”, “this stress is bringing me down” “I’m not strong enough to handle this”). What she found is that even when people have the same amount of actual stressors, they are NOT negatively affected in equal ways by the stress (counted by mortality rates, illness, etc.). It is ONLY the people with the negative outlook about stress that have an increased risk of these negative consequences. This is pretty shocking and counterintuitive research: a person’s perspective of their stress matters more than the amount of stressors themselves.
Since this research suggests that one critical protection against the negative impact of stress is to have a better attitude toward it. How do we accomplish that?
“Resilience” is one way that researchers describe this constructive attitude about stress. The skill of resilience is being able to cope well with adversity, meaning that not only do you bounce back and recover well after experiencing adversity, but you learn from the experience. Carol Dweck is a well-respected research psychologist who describes people who are resilient as having a “growth mindset.” These people tend to see stressors as challenges rather than threats. In this TED talk, she discusses the difference between what she calls a “fixed” mindset versus a “growth” mindset. In facing challenges, someone with a fixed mindset thinks of mistakes as failures (“I don’t have what it takes to do this well”), whereas someone with a growth mindset sees those mistakes as “not yet” succeeding. Her point is that having a growth mindset allows a more constructive engagement in errors, one that makes learning from mistakes more likely.
A fixed mindset encourages avoiding adversity (“I’m not going to try because I’ll probably fail”) while a growth mindset encourages facing adversity directly, with an understanding that facing challenge and learning from it will build greater strength (“I’ll give this a go, and if it doesn’t work I’ll learn what I can and try something else”). When adversity is practiced, the muscle of self-efficacy is developed. When adversity is avoided, self-efficacy withers. To have a sustaining level of self-esteem, one needs personal knowledge of having tackled adversity and persevered – which is much more likely to happen when you have a growth mindset.
How to manage stress
Cultivating a “resilient attitude” requires that you become more aware of the positive aspects of facing stressors and try to develop a perspective that enhances your ability to grow from experience and mistakes. Changing your perspective is not so easy, but it is possible with greater awareness and clarity about what can build up your resilience.
Try to adopt a “growth mindset” toward challenges you face and remember that stress can be an opportunity to build strength and a sense of accomplishment. When the wind blows and pushes on tree limbs, the roots are pulled and the tree is signaled that it needs to develop a deeper, heartier root system for holding the tree in place. The simple act of viewing stress in this way can help your body react in a healthier way, building resilience and protection for the adversities ahead.
In addition to being aware of your attitude toward stress, what else can be done? It comes down to the basics: manage emotions with skill, being mindful of what is positive in life (including practicing “3 Moments”), and getting enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food. And don’t forget breathing! People often hold their breath or breathe in a shallow way when stressed, which actually makes the stress on the body worse.
Next month in “Resilience: Part 2” we will give you even more suggestions about how to decrease the stress levels in your life.