Good Stress v. Bad Stress
I’ve certainly experienced my heart pounding, my breath getting short, my thoughts racing – the human stress response – when a small child darted in front of my car chasing a ball last year or the time I dropped by car keys down a storm drain. (Only once!) You’re probably familiar with similar rushes of adrenaline – even just getting an envelope from the IRS let alone opening it, or your luggage didn’t arrive with you at the airport and you realized your house keys were in your luggage. (Only once!)
It’s counterintuitive to think there might be anything good about the situation or our automatic stress response to it, but scientists are discovering that there are two possibly terrific ways stress is “good.
Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist at Stanford, explores these two possibilities in her book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It and in her TED talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend.
The first good outcome is that the stress hormone adrenaline does prepare your physical body to take action – to meet any danger quickly. The stress response activates strength and energy in your physical body. In other words, stress is part of your “biology of courage.” (Think of the stories you have read of people who have lifted a car off a person trapped under it or dived into a raging river to rescue someone.)
The second good outcome is that the stress response also activates the release of oxytocin. Recognized as the neurohormone of bonding and belonging, oxytocin is also recognized as a stress hormone released as part of the body’s stress response, at least as much as adrenaline is. Oxytocin “fine tunes your social instincts” and motivates you to seek support in times of stress. In this way, stress is part of your “psychology of connection.” It primes you to reach out when you need to ask a friend to stay at their house until your luggage arrives or prompts you to call the city and persuade them to send a maintenance worker to remove the storm drain and retrieve your keys. When life turns difficult, your stress response motivates you to seek support and/or offer support to others. (Think of the stories of people evacuating a burning building, helping each other down the stairs.)
The key to unlocking these efficacious benefits of the stress response is to shift how you interpret your experience of stress – friend or foe? Changing your mindset about stress, choosing to consider that your stress response might be helpful in motivating you to act quickly, motivating you to connect with others skillfully, strengthens your stress resilience. Your natural human stress response doesn’t have to derail your resilience; it can guide your choices to resilient behaviors and needed resources.
Exercise: Changing Your Mindset about Stress
1. Changing a mindset is actually a big project. We first need to discern what our mindset is; do we believe stress is bad? That stress is always bad?
2. Then we can begin to explore and reflect: has there ever been a time when our stress response was actually motivating? We signed up for a computer class or dance class or volunteered for a political campaign because we wanted to create something different in our lives, connect in our world differently, even though we could feel the anxiety and hanging back as we started?
3. Then begin to rehearse situations ahead of time where you might experience stress: filling out a job application or planning a trip or buying a new car. Practice framing the butterflies in your stomach or your heart in your throat as your body’s signals that you are about to embark on something important. That you are choosing to do something you really want to do, and your body-brain is helping you activate to do it.
4. And, of course, use the occasion of a potentially stressful occasion to reach out to people who care about you and will support you in your new ventures. Stress activates you to be more social and to be more supported.
When you choose to view stress [as helpful] you’re not just getting better at stress. You’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.
– Kelly McGonigal
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Note: After 11 years of posting the monthly Healing and Awakening into Aliveness and Wholeness newsletter, I am shifting the focus of these posts to the Resources for Recovering Resilience, focusing each week on a monthly theme: stress, strengthening the brain’s CEO of resilience, optimism, etc.