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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
30 Oct

Rethinking Stress: It Could Save Your Life

Own the StressThink 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.

Your pounding heart and racing pulse? It’s delivering nutrient-rich blood to your muscles, organs, and other tissues.

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.

So don’t.

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!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great article. However it only seems to address occasional bursts of stress in response to occasional extreme circumstances – rather, it’s chronic continuous or continual stress that’s the real enemy and much harder to deal with.

    Continual stress is a different thing – one which is probably more severe over time and which avoidance/reduction in exposure is probably more advisable than acceptance. I’d be really interested in an article from you which focuses on this topic and what other people think?

    Ngawang Kunzang wrote on October 31st, 2013
    • BANG!! cf. upper post post when it finally exits ‘moderation’ hell. Peace.

      I ain’t takin’ no prisoners on this one & you are totally bang on!

      Sorry, I cuss a lot. That’s why you may need to wait a day

      Iluvatar wrote on October 31st, 2013
  2. Normally I find Mark’s articles to be good, sensible, practical takes on what are sometimes complex issues. This article, however, hugely misses the point. The stress response in natural systems is invoked periodically – i.e. in response to critical events that require emergency responses. The problem with stress in modern human life is that it is SUSTAINED. This causes tons of well documented problems (and not just in humans – see Sapolsky’s research on stress in baboons and other animals).

    Jordan wrote on October 31st, 2013
  3. A good quote my dad sent me:

    My quote of the day, “Worry is like a rocking horse, it gves you something to do but never gets you anywhere” have a stress free day xo

    Steve wrote on October 31st, 2013
  4. A good quote my dad sent me:

    My quote of the day, “Worry is like a rocking horse, it gves you something to do but never gets you anywhere” have a stress free day xo

    Steve wrote on October 31st, 2013
  5. What a great post and wonderful comments. Thank you everyone. I will offer one tip that has helped me with stress of the chronic variety: The phrase “move toward anxiety.”

    For example, I am taking a couple days off work starting tomorrow and this morning when I made my “to do” list, I started with the things on a deadline and then I asked myself “what is really bothering me?” This is in the spirit of using a stress response for good.

    My insight into myself is that I usually am avoiding something because either I’m not 100 percent sure what to do or someone has really irritated me and I don’t want more of it. Dealing with what I want to avoid is a major way to address chronic stress. The comments above about addressing what one can control or influence also apply.

    That said, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and learning recently about the effects of poverty on children. Acute and chronic stress that comes from real and persistent daily challenges to safety and survival is a matter for our collective concern and action. The more I learn about the pervasive challenges others face from kids in poverty to refugees to cancer patients, the more I really stop caring that some jackwagon didn’t accelerate to make the green light. If we all put our energy into our really big shared problems maybe we could make the world a little less stressful for everyone.

    To that end, this site makes a powerful contribution by improving health and empowering people to make healthy choices so a big +1.

    Thanks for letting me think about this with everyone.

    Juli wrote on October 31st, 2013
  6. This makes me want to reassess my job and get out of nursing.

    Matt wrote on October 31st, 2013
  7. In my experience, this actually does work pretty well for physical training as well. I am a competitive weightlifter, and shifting my mindset about training from “physical work and stress” to “play and stress relief” has literally allowed me to triple my workload. Now that I don’t concern myself with the level of “stress” on my body, I can max out on squats, cleans, snatches, and deadlifts every day and recover just fine, provided I sleep and eat enough.

    ELI wrote on October 31st, 2013
  8. Stress isn’t automatically good or bad. There are different types of stress. The adrenaline surge of a roller coaster ride affects a person quiet differently than running off the road and taking a terrifying ride down a hillside without hurting the car or person. Neither person receives physical injury, but the amount of fear involved is dramatically different. One is an expected, controlled ride that you know there is an end to in about 1-3 minutes with people in line waiting to take your seat. The other is a terrifying jolt out of the blue in which all sense of control is lost and your continued existence is highly questionable.

    While its true that the way people perceive some stresses can change the way it feels and affects them, I don’t think it can be simplified quiet so easy. Studies in Europe highlighted in the documentary “This Emotional Life” show a clear link to the types of stress related illnesses that people who have a job with a large amount of control end up with, versus those who have little or no control. Those with little or no control have more overall stress related illness and much lower levels of happiness.

    Robert Zapolsky’s work on baboon’s in Kenya showed very interesting things about stress. Some sort of virus or disease was contracted by a group of baboon’s he had been studying for many years. For whatever reason, the baboons that were fatally affected were mostly dominant alpha males who made life hell for the others in the group. Not long after, when Zapolsky went to do more studies on the health and blood work of the surviving baboons, markers of stress and stress related illness plummeted. The very few remaining alpha males had been forced by the others to adapt to the group and lose their dominant terrorizing ways. All members of the group benefited, included the former dominant alpha males.
    The amazing thing is, baboons are not aware that stress is bad for you, so they do not “think” about what stress does, so there is no way to taint the observations based on what they thought about the stress they were under was doing to their health.

    We live in a world today where stress is absolutely constant if you allow it to be. I feel that stress you have control over is much less likely to hurt you than stress you have no control over. If you have people in your life that make you miserable and you are unable to do anything about it (at least immediately), I think your health risks from stress are higher. Not that its easy, but by far the best thing you can do is make a calculated plan to remove yourself from the situation that has so much control over you. Downsizing your lifestyle to take a job that doesn’t expose you to day in and day out criticizing and harassment from an awful boss would be well worth it if that’s what it takes to remove a major controlling stress source in your life.

    Erick wrote on October 31st, 2013
  9. Great article @Tom mentioned placebo may be involved in EFT I believe this is an aspect of how different individuals heal, placebo needs to be studied more, unfortunately it has become used as a derogatory dismissal of anything outside of conventional medicine.

    I wrote an article about it several years ago

    Here is a quote from the article
    “The variation in different peoples ability to heal is a significant factor in the development of the concept of placebo in medicine. Placebo is from Latin meaning “I shall please” in its original use it was a term of religious origin. By the 14th century it had moved beyond its religious context and was used to refer to a flatterer or sycophant — a meaning that probably reflected disdain for professional mourners of the time. Placebo’s first usage in common medical terminology appears to have occurred in the latter half of the 18th century. It maintained its pejorative connotation and was used to disparage treatments that were understood to derive not from sound medical principles but were rather dispensed in order to please the patient and thereby curry both favour and income. In modern times placebo is understood to have no pharmacologic activity. It does however, have an effect.”

    DavK wrote on October 31st, 2013
  10. My stress in intimately connected to my ears I have loud tinnitus nothing seems to make a dent. Been primal and paleo for at least a year. Have heard of anything that works? Any info would be appreciated!

    HBJ wrote on October 31st, 2013
    • Depends on the cause of the tinnitus, nerve damage is the most difficult but many other types improve and sometime can be eliminated by Chinese Herbal Medicine sometimes combined with acupuncture.

      DavK wrote on October 31st, 2013
  11. Using NLP success principles: “Nothing has meaning but the meaning we attach to it” and “What you focus on increases” can really be of help here. So many times people sweat the small stuff and seek perfection that does not exist, choosing to put themselves through the stressor response mechanisms when really the sky is not going to cave in if they are 5 minutes late or get wet in the rain. The mind is an incredible machine – if we focus on negative things then the mind will prove us right and we will find them. If we choose to focus on more helpful or positive things in life we will also find them. Have you ever seen or bought something thinking how unusual it is and then suddenly you see it everywhere you look? Really we can only control our own behaviours and responses to situations so stressing about something that is out of our immediate control (sure we can influence others and situations but not necessarily control in full) seems a bit pointless. If you choose to stress, get frustrated, grumpy and lose your smile – make sure it is over something worthwhile. If that seems a bit trite I apologise. I have lost both parents to cancer and a brother has recently been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Others getting upset and stressed only made them feel worse and put pressure on them to put on a false bravado so I kept it real, acknowledged my fears and put the focus back on them and what they needed me to do and be to help them through their battles. Thanks Mark for a thought provoking article.

    Lorraine wrote on October 31st, 2013
  12. Nice post Mark. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT; ‘Tapping’) has also been indicated as a be a great tool for shifting our association/response to stress(ors).

    Christopher Warden wrote on November 1st, 2013
  13. Stress reappraisal applied to everyday life…brilliant. I have read a bit about this in the past, specifically more as it relates to performance anxiety regarding sports (particularly golf). The great thing is that when professional are asked about nerves prior to big events, they tend to respond by saying they welcome the nerves, and that nervousness is a sign of being ready to compete. Basically they use it to their advantage and welcome the feeling. This is compared to lower level athletes who perceive the pre-game nervousness as negative. I believe that this is one of the major differences between elite athletes and just great athletes.

    But why can’t this approach be applied to life? I never even thought about it until now. Wonderful.

    Andy wrote on November 1st, 2013
  14. Fantastic blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid
    option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed ..
    Any suggestions? Kudos!

    Leola wrote on November 5th, 2013
  15. Count to 10 so you don’t do something you would regret. Works on anger and I guess anger is stress.

    Gary Kain wrote on November 5th, 2013
  16. The example of stress that arises form an approaching bus is not the same “stress” that kills. Such a stress is a flight or fright syndrome experience. It comes and goes quickly. Rather, the “low-level” stress of the day-to-day grind at work, with kids, commuting, etc., wherein the stress level is not as high as one of immediate danger that comes and goes quickly but is constantly nagging at you, is the one that kills. YG

    Greg Turner wrote on November 5th, 2013
  17. I just wrote a blog post about this concept! I saw Kelly Mcgonigal’s Ted talk about it, and it was so in line with what I have always thought. Stress is neutral, it’s our perception that makes it “distress” vs “eustress”.

    shadia wrote on November 6th, 2013
  18. What about stress that is totally subconscious? I have had incredibly itchy skin for close to a year now. I have read that this can be caused by stress. My GP, my dermatologist and my traditional Chinese medical doctor have no idea what it is nor how to treat it. I have tried all sorts of herbal preparations, acupuncture, dietary changes, meditation, Tai Chi, EFT, pills and salves, both prescribed and over-the-counter, to no avail.

    My wife believes that I am still subconsciously carrying around anger, resentment and grief from my early childhood experiences of over 60 years ago. For as far back as I can remember my body has almost constantly been in a sort of flight-or-flight mode. My jaw is almost always tightly clenched even when I am supposedly relaxed, and especially when I sleep. My shoulders are hunched and my stomach tight.

    And yet I don’t FEEL stressed… nor do I exactly feel happy… I don’t really feel much of anything. I certainly don’t consciously keep going over my miserable childhood and hating my parents. I guess I should just try the “Fake it till you make it” idea. I don’t know if that will stop this terrible itching though.

    IanD wrote on November 7th, 2013
  19. thank you so much.

    what is anxiety? wrote on November 29th, 2013

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