For some time now, we’ve been stressing about stress. One would be hard-pressed to find a lifestyle magazine or talk show that doesn’t regularly broach the subject, pinpointing habits and foods believed to exacerbate or relieve stress, underpinned by the accepted ‘truth’ that too much stress will send us to an early grave.
By now, we all know that the stress-response was primed to help our distant ancestors survive life on the plains and savannahs, where being eaten by fierce animals was a legitimate threat. And we know that our bodies ‘betray’ us by activating the same stress-response when faced with non-life threatening situations, those banal woes of modern living, like traffic and the stream of notifications on our smartphones that keep us plugged in to work and every person on our whatsapp lists twenty four/seven.
And if it isn’t bad enough, stress is maligned as a sign of weakness. Something we need to hide so that others don’t realise that we lack confidence, or worse, competence! It seems like a pretty lose-lose situation. Stress begets more stress, making us feel like victims to a bodily reaction that overwhelms and threatens to expose us.
I bet all of us also know just what we are supposed to do when we feel stressed – the basics (that do actually help us to calm down), like breathing deeply, taking a walk outside, listening to music, or repeating a mantra like “this too shall pass”. But we’ve *been* knowing this, for a while already! So, how well has it been working out for you?
Ever wondered if we’ve got his stress thing all wrong?
That is exactly what health psychologist Kelly McGonigal argues in her 2013 TED Talk. Referencing a load of studies, McGonigal explains that it is in fact not stress itself that negatively affects our health, but our belief that stress is a bad thing!
According to McGonigall, all we need is to rethink the way we perceive stress. Instead of seeing stress as indicating our own weakness, we need to train ourselves to see it as a positive thing – as our bodies being “energised.” On a physiological level, your heart will still be beating fast, but seeing this positively allows your blood vessels to stop constricting, to relax, thus making the stress-response akin to how our bodies respond when we feel joy or courage.
Stress also makes us social, causing the release of oxytocin (the famed “cuddle hormone”), and driving us to reach out to others. And the key point here: oxytocin helps to protect your heart from the negative effects of stress. And it is a powerful protector. Studies show that even those who suffered traumatic life events could be shielded from stress-induced illness if they spent time caring for others.
This has all the makings of a game-changer in the eternal battle against stress. Why battle something that is actually pretty awesome?
Next time you feel that familiar response kick in, don’t stiffen up, just step right into it. Let your body do what it’s meant to do, and embrace the way it is preparing you to step up to the plate, to get things done, to operate essentially on another level.
Like many really important things in life, this is about owning the feeling rising up within you, not turning away from it, not bottling it up to be dealt with another time, but facing it head on. Just as we learn to face the truth about who we are, face our past, face the people and the things that hold us back, face them so that they cannot harm us any longer. And that very act of facing it is what makes you stronger. That very act of owning that stress-response, seeing it for what it is – our bodies helping us rise to a challenge – takes away its potential to harm us.
So, we breathe in that fear and breathe out courage. We stop running away from this monster, we turn around and face it, and see that it was always, in fact, a friend.
Date Published: 12 November 2015