Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters


Rethinking Stress

posted by Dr. Arnie Kozak

BS07021Kelly 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.

 

 



  • http://louellabryant.com Ellie

    Thanks for this enlightening and helpful post, Dr. K. I’ve been digging deep into my mindfulness tool bag lately, and these wise words will sparkle among the other instruments.

  • williamwalker91

    Have you ever had to get a tree removal company? I have a tree that is rotting and I need it taken care of. I think I am going to see if http://www.greenandgoldtreeremovals.com.au can do it.

Previous Posts

Time to Wake Up: Reading Your Way to Awakening
We have been asleep, collectively and individually and there is a growing call to wake up. The Buddha was the first to suggest this change in consciousness 2500 years ago (and as you know the term buddha means one who has awakened). And now there are three books that have come to my attention with w

posted 11:05:45am Oct. 22, 2014 | read full post »

Citizen of the Cosmos
I recently heard Ann Druyan interviewed on Radio Lab. She spoke of falling in love with Carl Sagan when they were working together on the Voyager mission in the late 70s, where she was in charge of developing the content that would be sent out into space for alien cultures to discover. It was a touc

posted 9:59:05am Oct. 14, 2014 | read full post »

The Present Heart: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Discovery
Polly Young-Eisendrath has a new book out, her fourteenth. This is a book like no other that I've ever read. It is a memoir and it recounts events that I lived through as dharma friends of Polly and the love of her life, Ed Epstein. The Present Heart is a statement on the nature of love. It defin

posted 8:41:37am Oct. 09, 2014 | read full post »

Mindfulness and Climate Action
One Earth Sangha presents Mindfulness and Climate Action, a series of online conversations. These are free and start today and will continue through October into November. I am especially excited that Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield will be presenting today. I hope you can catch it. You can regi

posted 8:31:51am Oct. 05, 2014 | read full post »

A Chilling View Inside the Quiet Room: Electric Shocks Preferred to Sitting Still
A study recently published in Science provides a window into the restless soul of Americans and a compelling case of why we need mindfulness. University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues conducted a series of experiments where subjects spent time alone in an unadorned room. We

posted 8:53:12am Aug. 29, 2014 | read full post »




Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.