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Kelly McGonigal tells us how to make stress our friend in her TED talk. As a health psychologist, she talks about how she made stress the enemy to her students and how she has now changed her mind. She points out that stress is not objective. It’s how we perceive stress that makes the difference.
There is no objective scale for stress. One person’s overwhelm is another person’s challenge. We are built for responding to challenges and are highly adaptable when we dont’ get in our own way.
Stress is energy. That energy can be recruited for action and connection and this depends on our appraisal of it. When the self-referential narratives are absent, stress can be our friend. See my last post on I, me, and mine. Preoccupation with I, me, and mine will amplify the stress response and view it as negative, unwanted, and something to avoid. “I can’t handle this.” “Oh my god, this is awful (for me).” When self is absent, the stress can be harnessed as energy. “How do I use this energy to further my goals in the moment?”
The first study cited by McGonigal by Keller and colleagues concludes: “The results suggest that the appraisal of both the amount of stress and its impact on health may work together synergistically to increase the risk of premature death.” They go on to speculate about what might contribute to this finding: “a person’s negative expectancies, resiliency, and locus of control regarding health.”
Let’s explore these. A negative orientation is associated with poorer health outcomes. Expectations contribute to poor health behavior leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Resilient people learn from adversity and are better equipped to handle challenges down the road. People with an external locus of control may feel besieged by life’s stressors. These people have worse health outcomes than people with an internal locus of control who believe they can make a difference in their health.
What we don’t know is whether there is a causal relationship between perception of stress, high stress and mortality. It might be that people who have poor health are more likely to report high levels of stress and since this study asked people to report on their health retrospectively, that can’t be ruled out. Still, it is a fascinating correlation and one worth noting.
Caregiver stress has been recognized as a major public health hazard. However, it is not clear that it is the active caregiving that is the source of this stress. It could well be prolonged exposure to the dying or deteriorating spouse, independent of the help given. Michaeal J. Poulin of the department of psychology at the University of Buffalo (where I received my Ph.D.) and others found that helping others seemed to cancel out the relationship between stress and premature death (this is the study cited by Kelly McGonigal).
McGonigal also talks about the role of oxytocin. We tend to think of stress as the fight or flight response. I have certainly been guilty of presenting this view of stress. But there is more to the stress response. When I taught health psychology, we used Shelly Taylor’s textbook. She developed the “tend and befriend” theory of stress. The neurohormone oxytocin is key for connection and arises in some (but not all stressful circumstances). Tend and Befriend is more characteristic of a female response to stress and the role of oxytocin that is influence by estrogen. Men tend and befriend too, but not as much.
Helping others can reduce our stress. When we tend to others, we are once again moving away from the self-referntial narrative.
Top Five Things to Know About Stress
1. Stress is an inescapable part of life.
2. How we view stress makes a huge difference in how stress effects us.
3. Stress is energy; resilient people make good use of that energy.
4. The subjective effects of stress require a storyline
5. Connecting with others can offset the potentially harmful effects of stress.
Resilience brings us into a process frame of mind and away from an outcome, storytelling mind-based approach to life’s difficult events. Resilient people tend to be connected with others and do not make stress into an adversary. Instead of anxious aversion to life’s vicissitudes, resilient people say: “Bring it on!”
Mindfulness supports resilience. When you are engaged in the flow of the moment you are reacting to the moment in an organic way. “What does this moment require of me?” Instead of wondering: “Can I handle it?,” there is just action and reaction in the moment. There is less “me” for that stress to adhere to. McGonigal cites joy and courage as the states this approach most resembles.
When you can meet stress with equanimity, your heart opens (literally in the sense that your blood vessels don’t constrict as much). You can trust yourself to handle what life brings in your direction. You are there in the moment to meet those challenges and with mindfulness you can bring a peaceful resolve to each challenge.