Think back to the last time you were under stress. What kind of physical symptoms can you recall?
Pounding heart. Increased pulse rate. The sensation of blood rushing through your body and brain. A narrowing of focus, your thoughts and gaze centered on the stressor itself; and then, suddenly, you’re scatterbrained. Anxiety. Your stomach a pit apparently filled with fluttering, winged insects. These are all familiar to anyone who’s faced down a deadline, bull in the arena, mounting stack of bills, or mugger.
But those symptoms also show up at other times in response to different situations. Mustering up the courage to ask a girl or guy out? Trying to make a move on the first date? Preparing to take a big test? Stepping up to the free throw line for potentially game-winning or game-losing foul shots? Psyching yourself up minutes before a public performance? You’re going to feel anxious and sweaty, your pulse will pound and you’ll exhibit all the classic symptoms of being under immense amounts of stress. But you’re not actually in danger. You’re under pressure. You’re gearing up to perform. Your nervous system is preparing you to handle the coming task.
Let’s look at those symptoms differently for a second.
The tunnel vision? All the better to help you focus on your target or goal.
Faster breathing? More oxygen for your brain.
Anxiety? It’s to ensure caution and leave nothing to chance.
Even our sweaty palms and pits aren’t there to throw us off our game and make things even harder. We sweat under stress in order to alert others nearby – by odor – to the danger so that we can mount a unified response.
This changes things up, doesn’t it? Getting anxious over a girl doesn’t damage your health, nor does giving a speech. But the response to these challenges are eerily similar to the stress response.
That’s because the stress response is a preparedness tool, sometimes hastily thrown together by the body and wrongly interpreted by our brains, but it’s not the enemy. It’s there to make us work better under duress. It heightens our senses and steels our nerves and increases our attention to detail. We need it. And if we learn to reinterpret the stress response, the actual physiological changes that occur when you encounter a stressor, you may be able to reduce, sidestep, or repurpose the negative effects of stress on health. One recent study suggests this, finding that although high amounts of stress increase the risk of dying, it does so only in individuals who perceive stress to be harmful. In people who don’t see stress as a health threat, stress does not appear to increase mortality.
If the connections found in this study are indeed causative, this is huge. It means that stress isn’t “bad.” Stressing over stress is what makes stress so stressful.
To understand how this might work, let’s take a truly stressful, harrowing, dangerous situation, one that definitely deserves the stress response: a speeding bus headed straight in your direction. Do you consciously decide to throw yourself to the side to avoid collision? No; you just do it. Something inside you clicks and compels your limbs to move. It’s only after the fact that you can piece together what just happened.
That “something” is the amygdala, a region of the brain that receives and interprets incoming visual and auditory information. The amygdala is the “lizard brain.” Every animal, both higher and lower, has one. If it perceives a dangerous sight and/or sound, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that controls our endocrine responses (in addition to many other functions). The hypothalamus receives the stress signal and notifies the adrenal medulla to make adrenaline and the pituitary gland to begin producing adrenocorticotropic hormone, which tells the adrenal glands to make our old pal cortisol. This all happens before you know it, and it’s this rapid, subconscious response that throws you out of the way to safety.
But there’s another aspect to the stress response, and it comes from the site of higher thought: the neocortex. The neocortex acts more slowly than the amygdala, deciding after the fact whether the amygdala’s response to the perceived stressor was justified and if we should continue to stay on alert. Since we have conscious control over the neocortex, we can use it in a variety of ways to dampen the stress response or even turn stress into a performance booster.
First, you can do what participants in a pair of stress reappraisal studies did: think of the stress response as a preparedness response. In the first study (PDF), subjects taking a standardized test were separated into two groups. Before the test began, both the experimental and control groups were told that they would have various salivary hormones analyzed to determine their stress and anxiety levels during the test; only the experimental group was told that research indicated “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” The experimental group outperformed the control group and displayed a greater stress response.
In the second study (PDF), subjects were separated into an experimental group and two control groups, then given tasks to complete. The experimental group was told to reappraise their stress response – the pounding hearts and elevated pulse – as a way for the body to distribute important blood and nutrients in preparation for a task; they actually displayed an altered physiological response to stress. The control groups experienced the increased pulse and vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels), as most people do when under stress. This can increase stress on the vessel walls and lead to damage. Meanwhile, the experimental group’s pulse increased like normal, but instead of narrowing, their blood vessels expanded. Expanded vessels ensured the increased blood flow was benign, and even beneficial. They also had reduced attentional bias compared to the control groups – they stopped focusing so much on the “stress” and instead focused on the task at hand.
Reappraisal has also been shown to reduce the connection between stress and depression. People with the tendency to reappraise a stressful situation are less likely to suffer depression as a result of the stress, while people who don’t practice cognitive reappraisal tend to suffer more depression resulting from stress.
Even in cases where the stress response is completely and utterly justified, as in war veterans with PTSD, cognitive reappraisal can lessen the severity of the stress reactivity.
And if all that doesn’t convince you, check out this inspiring TED talk from Kelly McGonigal that covers much of the same territory.
So, reappraisal – changing how you think about stress – is the big one, but there are other actions to take that can positively change your response to stress.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Say to yourself: “Look, traffic is unpleasant, but who cares?” Is it really worth being the guy who flips out because someone dared into his lane, every honk bringing him closer to stress-induced heart attack? We’ve all seen that guy, we’ve all been that guy, and it’s no way to live. If you get the urge to honk or speed up when someone puts their blinker on to come into your lane, don’t do it. Stay your hand. Acknowledge the desire, know that these urges are the result of a lizard brain prone to exaggerated responses in a modern world, and tell yourself that you’re better than that. You’ll go about your life with the preternatural calm of a zen master (well, maybe not quite that calm), deftly maneuvering through the thickest and nastiest of traffic and smiling all the while. In the words of a different type of zen master, “Let it be.”
In a “stressful” situation, get as weirdly analytical as you need to dismantle it. Ask yourself questions like “Is [the stressor] going to negatively impact my life enough to justify this physiological response?” or “How will sweaty palms and an elevated heart rate improve my ability to pay my car bill?” You’ll often find that answering them honestly and logically removes the stress.
Don’t let important things hang over you. Remember that mounting personal debt is not just an abstract stressor to be discarded or ignored or meditated away. You owe money; take steps to start paying down your debt methodically, however minimal the payment might be. You have a deadline; meet it. You’ve got a neglected spouse; wine and dine them. Some problems are real and deserve your attention. Reappraisal won’t beat everything.
Don’t ever say any permutation of “I’m so stressed,” even if you are. What’s the point? Whose cause does it serve? By reaffirming your stress level in a negative manner, you give it life and power over you. You’re literally telling yourself to be stressed out. It’s silly, so stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Give to others. Volunteer somewhere, help the old lady across the street (or whatever the modern corollary for that is), pitch in to help friends move houses, offer to show your mom how to properly lift heavy things, walk that old dog his elderly owner is unable to walk, make dinner for your sick buddy, and so on. A recent study found that stress only increased mortality risk in those who had not “provided tangible assistance to friends or family members.” People who helped their friends and family could endure stress without incurring a mortality risk.
And for those who think they can’t do this, that they’d never be able to truly convince themselves that stress wasn’t hurting them: faking it can work. Folks in the stress reappraisal studies had spent their lives hearing how stress could kill, just like all of you, and they were able to change how they responded to stress. See, the human brain is powerful. We have the unique ability to psyche ourselves out and think ourselves into a depressive, unhealthy pit, a terrible cycle of bad thoughts begetting bad thoughts begetting poor health. But it goes both ways. We can also trick ourselves into feeling better. We can tell ourselves that we don’t care about it, that the traffic doesn’t bother us – even if it kind of does – and that the stress we do experience isn’t harmful to our health, and not only will we eventually start to believe it, it will become true.
The ultimate message is that there is no “true you” underlying everything, waiting to call your bluff. Rather, we are what we think, say, and do. We have the power to shape our response to this sometimes but not necessarily stressful thing called life.
The real beauty of this approach is it’s easy. Thinking a thought takes almost zero effort. It expends very few calories. You can do it from the comfort of your bed. All you need is to know it can and it very well will work.
Stress will kill you.
But only if you let it.
P.S. Unfortunately, I doubt this works on obviously physical stressors, like overtraining, blows to the head, drug abuse, or lack of sleep. You can improve the total stress response by not psychologically stressing about the physical stress, but you won’t be negating the actual mechanical stress being heaped on your body.
I’m curious about your reaction to this. Does it change anything for you? How are you going to change your conscious perception of stress going forward?
Let’s hear all about it in the comment section!