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!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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170 thoughts on “Rethinking Stress: It Could Save Your Life”

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    1. I too believe this article is over simplistic. I thought I’m handling stressful situations well, flipping them onto a positive side (or at least getting sarcastic about it :)), switching into an ‘operational mode’ and ‘fix the probs’ at hand. until…tata, all of a sudden, I got diabetes type one. bam! welcome to the real world… I’ve always been an active healthy person, so it’s not due to bad lifestyle. I suspect it’s, err, SNEAKY stress. Through scientific articles I’m trying to find some logical connection between insulin, adrenalin, stress… etc. and how to make it work in one’s favour when things (read: body) don’t work as they should. No real satisfaction so far… Grok? 🙂

      1. You should test your 25 (OH) D. Type-1 diabete and low levels of vitamin D are strongly linked.

        1. Leo, you might be right about there being a connection, although I got diagnosed 3 months after moving to tropics exactly because weather was literally too exhausting in cold grey Europe…

        2. 3 months is not enough. Your d3 level should be between 80 and 120 ng/ml. Check it and supplement if necessary.

      2. Pink Muffin

        Thank you for voicing my thoughts. It is baffling when your energy system is sabotaged. Popular belief that diabetics need to lose weight is extremely stressful for a person with a BMI below 20. You are probably smarter than I am but may have a similar mistrust of categorisation .

        I know. I was misdiagnosed with type 2 diabetes five years ago, even though I was thin and healthy. The only reason for telling me I was type 2 was that I was 41 and medicine is preoccupied by numbers.

        If you would like a buddy to fight type 1 diabetes, do let me know. My intention is to improve my immune system, and to do that I would like to learn more about autoimmunity and T-cells.

        We may each need support from somebody with experience of this.

        Best wishes,

        [email protected]

        1. Improving your immune system won’t help with type 1 diabetes – it’s an auto immune condition. The stronger your immune system, the worse it will be,

      3. Isn’t Type 1 Diabetes genetic? I’m not convinced that stress has caused it for you…

    2. Don’t worry, you’re better than that!

      This article is so great because it specifically gives inspiration and solutions for handling the day-to-day stress. This is the biggest struggle in my opinion, especially when we don’t have or make the time to decompress our hectic lives.

  1. That paragraph at the beginning of the article exactly describes every morning getting my kids ready and on time for school! :-/ Time to reassess and apply some changes.

    1. I feel you, sister!! For about two years, every morning was a huge fight between me and my pre-teen daughter. We’d growl “I love you, have a good day” at each other as I dropped her off at school. Then one morning I decided I was not going to get angry with her any more, no matter the attitude. I would not yell any more. It was like a switch flipped inside me. Suddenly the anger and stress were gone and we began having much better mornings. I started saying things like “it’s okay, baby” and “we’ll find a way to make it work” about everything from hairstyles to school projects. I look back at those days with extreme fondness and regret that I let my stress response interfere with my ability to be a good mother (and a good grownup).

      1. ???????????? you learned and made a positive change, no need to regret that. And you wouldn’t have grown in that way unless you first displayed the opposite of who you wanted to be. ????

        1. Way true! Thanks for the encouragement, Brianne! It’s easy to forget that in order to know where we want to go, we have to realize that we aren’t there yet. Not there isn’t bad, it’s just not there.

  2. I have found this to be EXTREMELY effective. I first heard a similar approach listening to none other than Tony Robbins. He tells a story about talking to a nervous musician: The nervous musician described sweaty palms and an uneasy stomach before going on stage. Then Tony talked to Bruce Springsteen. He asked him what he felt before going on stage after all those years and how he wasn’t nervous. He said right before I go on stage my hands get warm and a little bit sweaty then my stomach gets exciting butterflies. “That’s when I know I’m ready to perform!” Bruce explained. Situations where we are “nervous” are controlled by our brains.

    1. Good article. It is not the stress response that kills us, it;s when it continues to run after we need it. But I agree with the article and Bruce, it’s what we do with the stress response. It’s nicknamed fight or flight for a reason and how we cognitively frame it has to do with it being helpful or not. Another trick I have seen work with severe anxiety is to have an individual try to increase the symptoms. Both are about giving the individual a sense of control. As Mark hit on it is the stressing over stress that gets people.

  3. I think moderate amounts of stress are helpful and can strengthen us. Excess amounts obviously aren’t. But it’s up to us to determine if they will strengthen or weaken us. As far as mental stressors go, prioritize, stay organized, don’t be afraid to ask for help, never give up.

  4. I’m surprised EFT wasn’t mentioned here. It isn’t just another “out-there” modality. In fact, it’s occasionally used in psychotherapy, although it’s easy and much cheaper to learn how to do it yourself. I’ve found it to be very effective for controlling stress and anxiety in difficult situations. It’s also been shown to be helpful for chronic pain and various types of addictive behavior.

      1. EFT or meridian tapping has the person tap various points on the body (related to acupunture/acupressure points) to “defuse” emotional response. It can be extremely helpful in doing reappraisals and in working over past experiences that still crop up in your brain and stress you out. A quick run through of the basic points only takes a few seconds and can super-charge your “take a deep breath.” used to have info on it and you can likely turn up a number of sources on the web. I have used it for several years and have found it extremely helpful in my personal experience.

    1. It relates, absolutely, but it takes the time to do EFT because it has the CBT component (setup) AND the mindful act of stimulating the acupoints. What is proposed here, in these studies, has to happen as quick as a thought (reappraising).

      1. No, it doesn’t take a lot of time to do EFT. It can be done in just a few seconds. The trick is to do it repeatedly until the goal is achieved, usually over a period of a few days. Acupoints aren’t that critical; all you need to do is be in the general neighborhood. You do need to be “present” while doing EFT, but it isn’t at all necessary to overthink or overwork the process. What you are doing is replacing negative thought patterns with positive ones. It’s that simple. There is a web site for FasterEFT that’s even more streamlined than what Mercola teaches.

    2. I agree, I am a therapist and learned this from a professor and have used it on myself as well as clients with awesome affect. I am also into Chinese martial arts and medicine so I had a natural interest when the professor shared the history of it. I immediately dialoged with a TCM practitioner friend and he was very interested and talked about how the points used are well thought out for disengaging the fight-flight response. “It works.”

      1. I’m a therapist and a researcher and am working on an EFT/mol bio project. I will definitely be adding these references to my dissertation paper.

        1. Beth, since you’re doing a paper, you may want to look into this possibly being a placebo effect. The recommendation of “thinking” down the problem (i.e. stress) is really the crux of the placebo effect.

          I remember a study done on wounded Vietnam War soldiers, where they were told a saline injection was morphine, and it helped more than just a statistically significant percentage. The brain is a powerful, powerful thing!

          I’ve personally come to the conclusion that even realizing, “yes, this is just a placebo, but it’ll still work,” will yield the same result.

    3. Good call. I’ve used EFT very successfully for depression as well.

    4. Agreed that EFT can work for some people as can a number of other placebos.

  5. One of the best articles on here in a long time. Very interesting

  6. I mostly live a low stress life. My worst offense..letting things to do hang over me. I don’t know if they could be categorized as important but they are things I want to do to get organized. I am not even sure I am stressed out about my slacker ways.

    I am making myself a list of things to get done this winter. Of course I have made this list before so I am loosing confidence in my ability to follow through.

    1. Hey Sharon, try setting them up as projects with a deadline. Break them down into steps and set yourself a time to complete them have fun with it even use a kitchen time or set alarms. Getting started is the hardest. If necessary have someone hold you accountable for the completion of each thing and remember to reward yourself when you have done it.

  7. If it can be solved, why stress?
    If it can’t, why stress?

    Careless attitude pays.

    1. Pretty much sums up the sensible Stoic idea to only worry about what’s under your control. I also like “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.”

  8. Reading this exactly 1 hour before giving a presentation to a panel of judges. Perfect timing! I’ve had symptoms for hours, but I’m trying to appreciate them as ‘I’m ready! This is going to be awesome!” Rather than freaking out about what I can’t just stay calm.

    Perfect timing, thank you!

  9. Makes sense to me. I’ve long preferred high energy, short turnaround work environments because of the stress responses I’ve experienced. I’ve been able to turn them into fuel for creative fire, allowing me to produce faster and better than I am able to in calmer, quieter times.

    The thing that heartens me is learning that this strategy might not be as harmful to me as I’d previously assumed!

  10. A very well respected chiropractor called James Chestnut describes stress and the physiological changes it brings as the bodies adaptation to the situation you’re in to allow you the best chance or surviving it, and moving to a less stressful (or hazardous) environment. Once you’re conscious of this, you begin to think in a similar way to that in this article. Just tell yourself “I’m in this state of stress to allow me the best chance of getting to a less hazardous place”. Elevated adrenalin – think increased alertness and awareness of hidden predators, high blood pressure – think more fuel for my muscles to outrun the tiger, high cholesterol – important for clotting, healing and repair should you not quite make it!
    If we’re never out of these changed states of physiology though, that’s when you start to break down, no matter what you tell yourself. Get some downtime, relax, meditate, whatever slows your mind.

  11. Good article, however, you said we are what think, say & do. I think this is a bit misleading. It sounds as though we shouldn’t acknowledge our body. I used to ignore what I felt until my body spoke so loudly that I wouldn’t ignore it any longer. Our feelings give us information. I understand that you are a “thinking” type, while I’m a “feeling” type, but for all the feelers out there, don’t forget that your body has lots of information to share. Thanks for all your great information.

  12. Great article, thanks! Just wondering about cortisol though, isn’t that always produced in a stress response and isn’t that always bad news?

    1. Worse if you don’t have any cortisol respond to danger because then the “saber tooth tigers” of life will eat you. You need corisol to get adrenalin to run! It serves an important purpose.

  13. You got debt pay it! Duh! Its not the actual debt that stresses people its not having the money to pay it!!!! AND having to keep accumulating it in order to not lose their home, etc…!

    1. Check out Mr Money Mustache. You can probably spend a lot less money than you currently do.

  14. Great article. I have Ptsd. It has taken me most of my life to learn what you just outlined- it’s the core of mindfulness thinking. Recently, my job started going nuts – endless calls with no resolution to issues where I noticed my BP rising as a result. Time to readjust the thinking on work stressing you out. I’m not being chased by lions!

  15. Definitive answers for this ‘it’s good for you/ bad for you world’. Thank you again Mr. Sisson 🙂

  16. I’ve done something similar for my mood at work. Every morning I pretended I was excited to be there and clean hotel rooms day after day; even though I hated my job.

  17. I usually agree with a lot of your posts but this one is just a little too simplistic.

    Your examples of “You owe money; pay it. You have a deadline; meet it. You’ve got a neglected spouse; wine and dine them seem contrite. For example “You owe money” how about you don’t have a job, you’ve been looking for months and most businesses aren’t hiring in Q4 since it’s a short quarter and they don’t want a new hire on the books. You owe money, you can’t pay it because you don’t have it.

    Neglected spouse, Wine and Dine them, OK, but let’s first remove the two jobs, three kids, and the lack of money. I’m not saying you can’t try to make it a priority but maybe you are spread so thin that this moves down on the priority list.

    I get faking it till you make it because this is something I have to do a lot and for the most part it works.

    Again, this article seems a little one sided.

      1. Funny, “Antifragile” is my next book in queue. Currently on working through “The Gunslinger” by Stephen King. I like it and there is a whole series, woot!

      2. Love, love, love Anti-fragile. It’s changed my world view and given me an existential crisis. Gotta love that!

    1. I don’t think it’s “you have stressful situation X, deal with it by doing Y and the stress will go away” because this article isn’t going to magically solve real life problems just because you changed how you were thinking about it.

      Feeling stressful about X is not a bad thing. It your body and mind recognizing that there’s something that needs to be dealt with and are responding accordingly. If you view stress as a force of good and embrace it, it might be the difference between feeling upset or nervous, and feeling ready and prepared for difficulty.

  18. The whole notion that expressing our feelings is being bad is well a stressor in itself. Saying, I’m stressed, is letting it out in some schools of thought. Holding it in – and in the brain is not good either. Some people can’t admit they too can fall victim to stress – creating stress. Let the energy go, let it out! Just don’t simmer in it!

  19. my family is full of hot heads and it was awful to grow up around a pressure cooker. going off to college gave me the opportunity to compare my own stress response to those around me, especially for the little things.

    i had a critical experience getting incredibly and increasingly angry and frustrated trying to change a bike tire. my roommate came home, saw me freaking out on the sidewalk and said, ‘jeez, it’s just a bike tire!’

    watershed moment. i walked my bike to the repair shop, paid them $5 to fix it, and never looked back.

    i practiced while driving, while shopping in an insanely busy natural foods store, etc. it took a year or two to really dial it down, but now i drive like a zen master, shop doing deep breathing exercises, and wander midtown manhattan like a taoist floating in a rushing river. i have LOTS of work to do on taming or reframing emotional stresses, but the daily stuff doesn’t phase me. it IS possible.

    also, i think the whole point of this is to listen to your body, and then talk back to it. the stress response is real. ignoring it will only compound it. and thinking ‘oh shit, i’m stressed!’ will only compound it. but saying to yourself, ‘hmmm, i’m stressed. thanks for telling me, body. what’s this about? is there anything i can do to address or mitigate it?’ that tells your body that it’s ok to chill. that you’re on it and will take care of it. i imagine that can only help. i’ve been learning through listening that you can actually have a convo with your body. and that once you start listening it will tell you more and more.

    1. Funny Jen I was the same exact way and could get easily worked up. I even worked I my family bike shop and can specifically rememeber flipping out on bikes. Now I had a whole new attitude and am much better and not getting worked up (not to say it won’t happen)

      It’s just a conscious decision to not want/like feeling that way.

  20. The above was a tongue-in-cheek comment. I am hugely appreciative of the impact Mark has had on my thinking and on the lives of so many. I think the gentleman is a true genius with a huge heart.

  21. This makes a ton of sense to me. Those physiological responses serve a purpose- that makes sense. I think the “faking it” aspect of the piece is a lot like what my dad taught me when I was going through puberty and in a continual state of negativity and dealing with potential ulcers, gaining tons of weight and the like- positivity breeds positivity and negativity breeds negativity in all of the senses you can think of- physically, emotionally, etc. In 7th grade I finally figured out what the heck he was talking about and ever since I generally don’t over-react to stuff anymore as a result and I handle life with all its ups and downs a lot better than most people I know. When I start to handle things less well, I realize there is something more going on and I can seek it out and address it. Knowledge and attitude really are quite powerful.

  22. I think we have to be careful about overreaching on what this experiment shows. It is well known that a person’s general outlook on life is correlated with mortality. This experiment IMO shows that those with a more positive outlook about stress, handle stress better. I think you would also find that those with a more positive outlook on sweeping the floor hand that better too. I think if you had told all the red heads that red heads usually do better on the test, you might find that positive attitude might improve their test scores. I think what you had here is a case where just about everyone was stressing because just about everyone stresses before tests. THen you told half of them they would do better because of the stress and they believed it. Therefore, they believed they would do better. I think it’s FAR too early to say this experiment shows that stress is good for you in general as long as your attitude is better.

    I think it shows that good attitude is good for you even in stressful situations. I think it also showed that those with a better attitude had a DIFFERENT KIND of stress response, dilated instead of constricted vessels. But did the experiment have a control group of unstressed people taking the test? Nope (could be they could not think of a clear way to do that). I would have liked to see unstressed people as compared to the stressed groups as maybe they would have done just as good or better than the positive outlook stress group. I will need to see plenty of evidence that positive outlook stressed types outperform unstressed types (and different types of tasks will also need to be looked at) before I will be ready to embrace stress THAT much! ;-P

  23. “Stressing over stress is what makes stress so stressful.”
    -Mark Sisson

    This is one of the best quotes ever! Thanks for a great article!

  24. @ Kate and others commenting on “meditation works”. it does and is a useful life skill. We all could benefit from a little quite time every day.

    However imeditation doesn’t do you much good in the middle of stressful situation requiring optimal performance. For that, I like the techniques taught by the folks at HeartMath, plus they have excellent science to back up the claims. The book The HeartMath Solution explains it well. For the technically inclined they now have a iPhone app that lets you see your heart rate variability realtime. This is not biofeedback – you don’t need to be hooked up to a machine to use the techniques – but seeing your physiology shift is a real convincer.

    Others mentioned EFT (emotional freedom technique). Well worth checking out. I recommend going to the source, Gary Craig. There is a free explaination and tutorial at: If you’ll Google EFT you’ll find a lot of people who have copy-catted Gary’s work, often with out attribution and without the care he brings to it. You’ll do better learning from Gary and his daughter.

    1. I must respectfully disagree with the “however” part of your opinion about meditation. The benefits of regular meditation deepen and persist throughout one’s day and life. There is plenty of published research that demonstrates changes in the brain. The Zen masters I once trained with practiced meditation that comes with a tradition of martial arts where you could really get your a** kicked not to mention a commit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings — not small, stress-free matters. Meditation enhances optimal performance under stress. In my experience, one can enjoy the stress response and its benefits while retaining a sense of calm and clarity that arises from a meditation practice.

      Thank you for sharing the HeartMath info. Very interesting and useful. I have a free app that measures my heart rate (from Huffington Post) and do use it when I can feel my heart rate rising in response to something, usually something stupid. What you posted is much more sophisticated. Thanks for the lead.

    1. those are useful supplements, especially GABA. You could also consider rhodiola or the Ayurevedic adaptogenic herb ashwagandha.

      However the real answer isn’t going to come from supplements. Developing mental control is key and much of what Mark describes in his post is cognitive restructuring. The Wellness Book is a good introduction to that as well as mindfulness meditation.

    2. My acupuncturist has me on GABA and 5-HTP. I have found them both helpful as I dealt with the stress of caring for both my in-laws in their final illnesses.

  25. I have found this to be true. I just can’t seem to do it just before my doctor appt when my blood pressure is to be taken. Riding in busy traffic… No problem.

  26. I agree with this article, even when one is out of work and money. Do what you can, even if it is only appreciating beautiful sunrises, sunsets, landscapes, flowers, children, etc. Dwelling on how over-stressed I am only makes me more so. Better for me just to take a mini-vacation and pick something from my garden. I like the idea of feeling stress as a sign of readiness and preparation to do something. However, one can get too busy and stressed, and then it’s time to be satisfied with what one has already done and take a break. Mental flexibility and self knowledge are good tools in using stress.

  27. It’s not acute stress that kills you, but chronic unremitting stress…

    1. Yes, I agree with this.

      I think some folks get in the habit of being “stressed-out” and actually become addicted to being in that chronic state. I’ve had more than my share of acute stress and I believe it’s helped make me a strong, resilient person.

  28. Great tip I got one time from a driving school instructer: (yes, had a couple of speeding tickets) “Drive like Spock.” The sub-human form in the green toyota cut me off while zig zagging through traffic…intriguing.

  29. I think I’ll take it a little easier on the commute home as that’s a huge source of stress for me.

    1. Ha!!! Since I work in high-tech, I’m the tech guru for all the seniors I know. My 70 and 80-something neighbors are all addicted to their ipads now.

  30. An amazing article. I’ve been under CHRONIC stress for months now–it totally changed my perspective. It makes sense. Why would God provide us with the ability to meet life’s challenges–like dealing with the Obumbler care disaster–without the means to make good use of the the inerrant ‘energy’ provided by stress? Clearly, a life changing article.

  31. I have tried to modify my all-or-nothing approach to life and, instead, gradually introduce positive habits. It also helps me to focus on things in life over which I can actually have an impact, which serves as an almost “re-introduction” to the internal locus of control I suspended when fretting about social problems large and small. My thoughts may stray occasionally, but I strive constantly toward a focus on myself and how I am thinking and feeling, listening to the cues of my body (difficult for an academic – lots of head, with little emphasis on the heart!). I keep reminding myself that I do not have to turn my life “up to 11.” And, to embrace the challenges, which produce substantial personal growth when conquered (and even when not!).

  32. This article is very timely, as I recently started a new job after a long summer of doing nothing. It has been hard adjusting to being back in the working world, and I have felt a lot more stressed than I want to be. The responsibilities won’t go away, but how I frame the stress is a HUGE help. This is the kind of attitude-changing advice I need that helps me continually realign my life to a more primal style. I love it!
    It also reminds me of something I’ve read about pain: how you can reframe your thinking about pain as a way to reduce it, or at least cope with it. If you see it more as a sensation in your body (unpleasant as it is), you rework your attitude toward it. Seems very closely related to the stress response and our reactions to it, I think.

  33. Mark, how about some tips for us older (60+) guys, whose metabolism is declining, along with our testosterone,we’re getting flabby, and developing unpleasant physical characteristics (man boons!).

    We may not be able t run 10 miles, or lift a lot of weight very day. Have some sympathy!

  34. I think if we can practice thinking positive thoughts every day, our whole outlook can change and that can’t be bad.

  35. I’d add a couple more things to this great article:

    1. Deal with your pressure items one at a time. If this isn’t the time and place for it, wait until it is. One of the great things about stress is that you can procrastinate. You put off other things all of the time, so why not delay something as tiresome as money worries? If you find yourself worried about your business, tell yourself “I will worry about that tomorrow. Right now, I’m only going to think about my health concerns.” This is the same as “be in the here and now” or “be in the moment.”

    2. Get things out of your head and into a productivity app or on the desk of a personal assistant. This way you can focus on doing things instead of worrying about what you may have missed. This lets you free your mind from remembering where everything is and what to do next. Instead you can re-focus on getting things done. Most of us worry about tasks falling through the cracks. When you have a good system in place, that’s one worry to cross off your list.

  36. Great tips, using a lot of these teqniques already and it really makes a big difference.


  37. I find that working to reduce stress is such a lifelong process. I definitely feel that over time I have developed better skill for handling stress but any tips are always helpful and I really like the idea of thinking of stress response as preparedness response.

  38. Don’t worry about what is stressing you…put that “worry” energy to better use. Think about how to solve the stress or problem. Maybe you can’t solve it…so think again how you can reduce or handle the stress or problem. Worrying will only lead to more stress, fear, anxiety or depression. Fight the stress or problem…don’t let it win!

  39. Nice article.

    No doesn’t work with the type of stress that is clearly identifiable and measurable, such as stress induced from overtraining, eating disorders, or a chronic sedentary lifestyle. A positive mental outlook can only go so far when hormonal imbalances and other measurable variables dominate.

  40. I am a Health Teacher and have taught a unit on Stress for many years. You bring up some great points! One of my favorite “words” to live by: “Don’t allow perception to become deception.” I tell my students that stress is a choice. It’s all how you perceive that life situation. Of course, “easier said than done!”

    Your past experiences, self confidence, how you are “hard wired”(genetics),and hormonal level play huge roles in that “perception” of that life event. The key is to not let the cortisol stay in you constantly; therefore, you must rationalize/forgive and get back into positive feelings over negative ones. It’s that constant cortisol release from perceived threats that do the damage!

  41. My grandmother turns 100 this week, she is still of sound mind and physical health. During her 100 years she has experienced many stressful situations but she is wonderfully philosophical and calm about things….probably got a lot to do with her longevity.

  42. Eight little words – which summarise much of what Mark has said – which work for me and which remove stress in most person-to-person situations:

    “Some will, some won’t, so what, who’s next?”.

    For stressful non-person events try “Some things work, some things don’t, so what, what’s next?”.

    Both versions are great for productivity and for moving on.

    Johnny, New Zealand.

  43. I think it is simpler to re-evaluate your stress response when the stressor is obvious, such as having to give a speech or taking a driving test. What about when the stress is inappropriate as experienced in anxiety sufferers? what about feeling sick, shaking, pounding heart, scattered thoughts and shaking hands happen when you are sat at your desk at work? and that overwhelming feeling of ‘need to get outa here’ is countered by your brains reaction ‘you cannot leave the office, you look stupid, what will people think’. Cognitive rethinking in this situation is not so straight forward.

    How can any of those reactions be reinterpreted as preparedness when there is nothing to prepare for?

  44. I first heard ‘lizard brain’ a couple years ago reading Linchpin by Seth Godin. Very funny. And i think it helped me.
    But one question i had was,
    How do i know when it is the ‘LizardBrain’
    talking to me or the real me !?

  45. Mark,

    You said, “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.” Absolutely brilliant, thanks for crafting that pair of sentences. So true…of course with that sort of power comes a great deal of responsibility, but hey, I’m game!


    1. Peter, thank you for pulling out this quote. I have found that I believe that “I’m only as good as what I do” and have pretty much been tormented by living that way (and largely being rewarded for it) while often being told that’s unhealthy and I need to make peace with some true self. This seems like a very modern problem which makes me wonder what the paleo perspective is. Perhaps “you eat what you kill.” I would love to see a longer post about this.

  46. Lissa Rankin’s book Mind Over Medicine is all about reducing stress for health. She’s got some Ted talk videos too.

  47. Oh my god, how funny to read one of the article you cited and just happen to notice that I was quoted as the lead author of the study! We did that work on human alarm pheromones, showing that the brain detects fear in others by sweat alone.

  48. My Austin Texas brother-in-law switched to Zen driving when he realized the risk he was taking just driving work. Now he counts how many vehicles he can let in during his commute. I’ve made the change as well. Well worth it.

  49. We are all hard-wired somewhat differently, and inherit different body chemistry’s. The reticular formation of some people filters stimulus quite a bit (thrill seekers, shrug things off) and in other people the filter does not work well (sensitive to stimulus, overreact to situations) and in addition for some people their neurotransmitters are efficiently utilized, in others not so much (leading to potential anxiety, depression or panic attacks). My point is Mark’s observations and recommendations are excellent, but to add to the list, if you tend to get more stressed out than others due to certain factors, don’t beat yourself up, it may be in part to how you are “bio-configured”. Just focus on re-mediating your situation as best you can. Now … I will attempt to take my own advice. 🙂

  50. Thank you for a wonderful reminder….if you are supposed to be meeting deadlines, GET TO WORK!! I needed this. I am a student of the subconscious mind, have been reading some books lately related to this, studying and using meditation, EFT, etc a while, and they all help with the subconscious messages problem. I have discovered that whatever I imagine, especially in contemplation, can be expressed in my real life. I realize there may be many skeptics, but I agree that if we give stress the chance, it will steal our joy and peace in life. Envisioning the life I desire and TAKING THE STEPS to achieve it have brought me great happiness! Maybe not in an instant, though that is not out of the question. Thank you for reminding me to do the work….I am in grad school and secretly whining to myself about being “too busy”….a terrible message for my conscious mind to send along to my subconscious. I can do this….and so can you!

    1. Patting you on the back for making personal application, nice!
      Thanks, we can all use your encouraging example.

  51. As for financial stress, I found a way to eliminate it.

    I became unable to pay back a credit card. I owe them ten thousand dollars.

    Guess what? I have no way to pay, so I don’t.

    When their letters come, I file them away.

    They called my phone 15 times a day, so I disconnected my phone.

    They destroyed my credit report, and I don’t care.

    I honestly tried to pay them. I can’t. I simply don’t worry about it, because credit cards are unsecured debt. They can’t take anything from me. I don’t have anything, anyway! I mean literally, I own NOTHING.

    I was once worth a million dollars, now I think I have 23 bucks in a checking account. That’s it. SO WHAT?

    I have no stress. It is that simple. Life is different now in many ways, but a lot less stressful. All those things I thought I needed were useless… they caused stress.

    So, to eliminate credit card debt stress… just forget it!

    1. Ok in theory, but in principle they hunt you till the end of time to pay it back.

  52. Great article. Removing the stress about stress is a good start. The big one I found, which I included in my course, was that stress shuts down your intuition. Intuition is your portal to your most wise thoughts. When it’s not working and you are stressed, you have more accidents, say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing and make really bad decisions.

    Becoming aware of stress as soon as it arises and working towards a more peaceful way of Being will bring back your intuition and allow the wise thoughts in which makes life work a whole lot better.

  53. With apologies to those of you that tired of these lyrics co-written and sung by Bobby McFerrin, and released in September, 1988, which title is taken from a famous quote by Indian mystic Meher Baba who would encourage his followers to “Do your best. Then, don’t worry, be happy in my love. I will help you”:

    “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (sans refrains)

    Here’s a little song I wrote
    You might want to sing it note for note
    Don’t worry, be happy
    In every life we have some trouble
    But when you worry you make it double
    Don’t worry, be happy
    Don’t worry, be happy now

    Ain’t got no place to lay your head
    Somebody came and took your bed
    Don’t worry, be happy
    The landlord say your rent is late
    He may have to litigate
    Don’t worry, be happy

    Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style
    Ain’t got no gal to make you smile
    But don’t worry, be happy
    ‘Cause when you worry, your face will frown
    And that will bring everybody down
    So don’t worry, be happy
    Don’t worry, be happy now

    Now there is this song I wrote
    I hope you learned it note for note like good little children
    Don’t worry, be happy
    Listen to what I say
    In your life expect some trouble
    When you worry you make it double
    Don’t worry, be happy, be happy now

    (I have found this to be a difficult song to get out of my head)

  54. Mark, your corollary remark has me thinking during game six of the World Series, which is a New England sin. There are SO MANY idioms in the English language that are agrarian based still used that most people have no direct link to. Farming used to be the norm so the idioms are rooted in common, well known observations. Today not so much. Often I snicker when the government releases “non farm payroll” numbers. The majority no longer interfaces, never mind works on, a farm. I wonder if tech idioms will naturally circulate and create new colloquial memes.

  55. Hi Mark. I’ve been paleo/primal since 1998, and I’m a big fan of how you (and others) have helped make this movement much smarter and more based in science and reason (and fun). I’ve recommended your site many times.

    But as someone whose day job is helping people challenge the way we think about stress, I think this post is off the mark and potentially misleading to the MDA community for a number of reasons.

    First, the Health Psychology journal article you cited on perception, stress, and mortality is misinterpreted. The article doesn’t prove that “In people who don’t see stress as a health threat, stress does not appear to increase mortality.” It says that people who experience a lot of stress AND those who see their stress as a health threat experience higher mortality. But the study points out that this doesn’t mean that the perception is all that matters — it could just be that the most stressed out and unhealthy people were the ones who noticed how stressed they were in the survey (reverse causality). There is plenty of other evidence in the stress research literature that stress alone, separate from the awareness of that stress, is physiologically harmful.

    Secondly, I completely agree that perception is incredibly important, but I think you focus on perception at the wrong link in the chain. It’s not the perception of stress symptoms that we need to challenge ourselves on. It’s the fact that stress itself is produced as a function of perception in the first place. Stress doesn’t come from one’s circumstances. It comes from one’s thoughts about those circumstances.

    So instead of suggesting that people think differently about their bodily changes during challenges, I’d want you to encourage people to think differently about the challenges themselves. There are no “stressors” in the world. Even during war, there are children playing. Reappraisal or reframing is key, but most people need a better way to do this than simply being told not to sweat the small stuff or avoiding saying they’re stressed. There are much better tools out there.

    I see that a few posters have recommended EFT and meditation. I’d like to mention one more tool — a process called ActivInsight that folks can learn free at or through the book The Myth of Stress, which looks harder at how stress really works. Disclosure: It’s my site and my book, and I’m happy to talk to any fellow primal friends about this subject.

    1. Thanks for the good comments Andrew. I generally agree. However, I’d also like to thank Mark for a nice post that has made me think about the subject even more.

      My view is that stress (especially what we mean by stress today) is unnatural. We shouldn’t have stress. Sure, if a bus is coming towards you, or you see a bear, or a lion, you’re going to want your body to be quickly activated to perform at a high level. But this should be just for a limited time. Apart from these real situations of stress, we should be stress free.

      As an example, in Mark’s post, he talks about stress caused by “Mustering up the courage to ask a girl or guy out”. This shouldn’t cause any stress. It’s because we’re worried about being rejected that we might feel stress. It’s the thoughts of what “could” happen that we form in our conscious mind that trigger some sort of emotional response in our subconscious mind. That’s what causes the stress. And worse still, it becomes a chronic form of stress.

      In today’s world our bodies are subjected to so much toxic stress, and stress from severely under-nourished diets. Then we add to this a whole lot of artificial standards that we “have” to live up to and our conscious brains are often awash with negative thoughts.

      If we could get ourselves to a state where we have zero negative thoughts, we really couldn’t have chronic stress. And doing this is much easier if reduce the toxins we’re exposed to and increase the nutritional quality of our food.

      And Andrew, I’ll check out your book and website.

  56. This made me think of women in labour. Women who see their contractions as their body’s means of getting the baby out and aren’t afraid usually cope wonderfully. The ones who just see the whole thing as a painful experience that they’re terrified of tend to struggle. Same situation, different perspective, very different outcome.

  57. Great article and am LOVING the comments as so many add their insights and experiences.

    I had a very stressful job in a hospital on the busiest unit. I went home absolutely SPENT every night. I finally was able to step back and analyze my stress responses to the job. Becoming mindful helped me untangle my emotions which meant I was able to think clearly about my work load and how to strategize to keep stress from overwhelming my mind, body and soul. I wrote Keep Calm post it notes as my mantra and would literally stop in my tracks to Just Breathe when yet another work crisis threatened to topple me. Practicing this kind of mindfulness helped me stop reacting and instead I began responding with (surprise!) a more effective approach to solving crises with a calm head and heart.

    The human brain is a rock star !!

  58. Thank you for expanding on this never ending topic. I heard Kelly McConigal’s Ted Talk last month and felt so much better after the talk. Yet, as I filled my days with non-stop work, I soon forgot her findings and suggestions. Shame on me.

    Greatly appreciate your reminder and added perspective!

  59. Great post. I attended a road traffic accident today – I had to stop and get off the road as the guy driving in front hit a lamp post, crumpling his car. The adrenaline surge, tunnel vision enabled me to avoid crashing myself and then call 911 and help get the guy out the wreck then administer first aid and talk to the 911 operator while the ambulance came. I was calm and focused, time stood still.

    Afterwards I started shaking. My friends worried that I was traumatised. This article is a great reminder that my body chemistry was doing its job in a high stress situation but that is a good thing and no lasting effects – I am not traumatised, I just experienced a normal reaction to an an out-of-the-normal situation and I am blessed and lucky my healthy reactions got me to stop the car safely and assist the casualty!

    (He’s been discharged, I just rang the hospital! Hooray!)

  60. I’m not so sure about this. I love the idea of it, but it has decidedly not been my experience. I come from a family of folks who don’t really stress about stress. We often don’t even notice we’re having it. And as a direct result, I ended up with a massive adrenal imbalance that lasted for years and still flares up when I’m under stress. Frequently that stress is so minor and insignificant to me that I have a hard time even figuring out what I’m stressed about. Yes, meditation helps. And ACKNOWLEDGING the stress helps. But I do get frustrated that my body now reacts to the slightest stress with such a dramatic response, regardless of my cognitive perception and valuation of it.

  61. One of your best articles ever, and it feels really invaluable to me right now. Thank you.

  62. Does anyone have any advice for phobias? I have developed a severe dental phobia about getting numb and gagging and suffocating. I have severe gag reflex, and now it is associated to being numb. Im trying to desensitive with lozenges that numb, but the thought of getting the novacaine haunts me…I need a root canal, 2 crowns, and several cavities. Im considering sedation, but i dont like the fact that I am so terrified. Ive had crowns done before and it didnt go well but I survived. Now its full blown phoboriphic. I really think gradual exposure is my only hope but I have yet to propose that to a dentist. Even on nitrous I freaked and started screaming and hitting once they were going to numb me.

  63. Lowering your cortisol? Is it as easy as taking plain, simple Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

    Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2002 Jan;159(3):319-24. Epub 2001 Nov 20.
    A randomized controlled trial of high dose ascorbic acid for reduction of blood pressure, cortisol, and subjective responses to psychological stress…


    Compared to the placebo group, the ascorbic acid group had less systolic blood pressure (an increase of 23 versus 31 mmHg), diastolic blood pressure, and subjective stress responses to the TSST; and also had faster salivary cortisol recovery (but not smaller overall cortisol response). Cortisol response to 1 microg ACTH, and reported side-effects during the trial did not differ between groups. Plasma ascorbic acid level at the end of the trial but not pre-trial was associated with reduced stress reactivity of systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and subjective stress, and with greater salivary cortisol recovery.


    Treatment with high-dose sustained-release ascorbic acid palliates blood pressure, cortisol, and subjective response to acute psychological stress. These effects are not attributable to modification of adrenal responsiveness.

  64. This was insanely interesting. The last year I have found that the right way to do things is completely contrary to what is generally recommended in more or less every major health aspect of my life:
    1. Food (Low Carb instead of Low Fat)
    2. Workout (Higher ratio Low Intensity Training over High Intensity)
    3. And now also Mental attitude towards stress (Embrace it instead of fight it)

    But does this mean that for example frequent releases of cortisol from stress isn’t harmful over an extended period of time or is does the body release less of these substances due to your mental attitude towards stress? What are the biochemical truths behind this?

  65. Great read! I agree with the hypothesis and I’ve tested it out a few times myself. It boils down to what state of consciousness one can achieve whenever things ‘go wrong’. By simply getting present / becoming aware of your thoughts, emotions, physical response (i.e. sweaty palms, cold sweat, restlessness etc.) you notice your reactions. In that moment you are distinct from your emotional and physical reactions – you recognize that it’s a response (i.e. you are watching yourself and you are distinct from those reactions).
    Simply doing that will transfer your focus from ‘being stressed’ to the task at hand or the present moment.
    Books on spirituality have been saying this for years! It’s great to understand the physiology behind it too.

  66. 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?

    1. 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

  67. 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).

  68. 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

  69. 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

  70. 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.

  71. 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.

  72. 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.

  73. 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.”

  74. 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!

    1. 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.

  75. 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.

  76. 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).

  77. 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.

  78. Fantastic blog! Do you have any recommendations for aspiring writers?
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  79. Count to 10 so you don’t do something you would regret. Works on anger and I guess anger is stress.

  80. 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

  81. 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.

  82. I drive in NYC every day for work. I find my struggle with stress very challenging. Sometimes I win, but most of the time it does get the better of me.

  83. A simple principle that seems key here is that peace/stillness of mind does not always correlate to stillness of the body. In fact, they seem quite inversel, unless after a task is completed or in the process of going to sleep. I like to add a spiritual element to this and think of our soul(or mind, or heart whatever you want to call it) as the nucleus of the atom that is our life. What does a nucleus do? Nothing. It’s “job” seems to be sitting still, allowing other particles to orbit it at whatever speed necessary.
    Physical stress, or any engagement with our present challenges, is often the cure for a stressful soul. The prime spot for which to aim when undergoing physical stress is “the zone” – that place where all of a sudden, you’re a witness to your own productivity, as if you’re watching a first person movie of an active, successful you. Whether it’s pick-up basketball, writing a paper, giving a presentation, doing laundry, or even having sex, the zenith of our performance capabilities seems to coincide with a “step back” from mental stress and a submission to physical stress; a stillness of mind.
    On the contrary, it’s interesting to examine our ability to be still in mind during would-be active times of the day. For example, sitting on the couch on a Tuesday, “relaxing” and not tending to present needs requires lots of mental activity. This mental activity seems to come from an attempt to justify inaction with out thoughts. It is the little thought devil’s attempt to win power over our hearts and bodies. The mental stress builds inevitably. Then, it get’s tempting to try and think through tasks on the couch, but these thoughts are nothing but egotistical boobie traps that keep us from doing the only thing that can bring peace-taking action.
    I like to note how most dogs “smile” with their tongue hanging out whenever they get a chance to roam freely at full speed. Yet, they are more likely to appear less relaxed when kept inside with plenty of food to eat. So now, I try to think of myself as a happy dog in times of intense physical stress. I may be at full sprint, or in the middle of an intense task at work, but if I can approach any task with acceptance and engagement, it starts to feel like I can relax like a dog and let my tongue hang to the floor as the physical side of me goes haywire.