Stress: Bring it On
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Do you know someone who keeps on keeping on, no matter what life throws at them?
How do some continue to thrive, flourish, and grow even stronger as they overcome the obstacles they face? The answer is resilience. In other words, facing the fear and doing it anyway.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Stress is the reaction to a triggering event or situation. There are different degrees of stress. A stressor may be short lived, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time. Some people manage stress more effectively and recover from stressful events more quickly than others.
The range of stressors may include:
Every day events can be stressful; running late for a meeting, not being prepared for a test, bills, getting cut off on the freeway.
Pressures from school, work, relationships, and negative thought loops in our heads.
Changes which may be sudden such as losing a job, divorce, or illness.
Tragic events that involved real danger and threat such as a major accident, war, assault, or natural disasters.
Whatever the cause of the stress is, the bodies’ response is the same.
So, what is stress?
Stress is the body's reaction to harmful situations. When we feel threatened or worry about things outside of our control, our bodies respond by activating our sympathetic nervous system. Input comes in and our brain interprets a threat and danger. The brain releases chemicals, known as stress hormones, into our bloodstream signaling our central nervous system to prepare our body to act. This reaction is known as "fight-or-flight,” or the stress response.
The chemicals that are released in our brain during stress are Cortisol and Epinephrine (also known as Adrenaline). The Cortisol turns sugar and fat stored in the body into energy and heightens our senses to address the threat. The Adrenaline is what gives us a kick start or jolt into action.
When the sympathetic system is turned on, the pupils dilate, the heart rate increases, the breath shortens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises. More energy, blood, and oxygen flow to large muscles in our trunk, arms, and legs to prepare us to fight or flee.
When we feel the stress response in our body, it is an automatic response. Our conscious mind may or may not be able to analyze the situation and determine what to do. When we are aware of the real or imagined threat, we feel fear.
Stress is not harmful. In fact, it is a necessary function that keeps us safe. Our bodies naturally recover from this state once the initial trigger is removed. Our parasympathetic system is then switched on and begins to calm the body down. Both systems work in tandem to keep our bodies in balance.
With today’s technology and modern pace, we are presented with constant stimuli that activates our stress response. Every time a text comes in on our phones or someone honks at us in traffic, the stress response is activated. When we stay in this persistent and repeated state of stress and do not have a natural way to recover, we put ourselves at risk for lifelong health problems.
When we view stress as harmful, we seek to eliminate and avoid it. But some people thrive on stress and welcome it. Some view stress in a positive way as fuel to push forward. Instead of viewing stress as threat, they embrace it as a challenge. They “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. The book written by Susan Jeffries Ph.D. with this title, claims that fear is what stops people from living their best life.
Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford authored the Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. In her book and TedTalk https://youtu.be/RcGyVTAoXEU, She explains that stress is good and has evolved to help us thrive in our modern world.
She encourages us to look at stress in a positive way. She argues it is the belief that stress is harmful that needs to be changed. We can never eliminate the stresses of everyday life. But we can change the belief we have about it and change how we manage it.
Psychologist Salvatore Maddi who founded the Hardiness Research Lab at the University of California Irvine also researched the way we view stress and came up with the same conclusion. He dedicated his career to identifying what distinguishes people who thrive under stress from those who are defeated by it. The ones who thrive, he concluded, are those who view stress as inevitable, and rather than try to avoid it, they look for ways to engage with it, adapt to it, and learn from it.
When undergoing a stressful situation, how then do we shift our mindset from fear to challenge?
It starts with Body Awareness. When you notice the sensations in your body and identify it as stress, you can consciously shift your mindset.
It looks like this:
STOP AND NOTICE
You feel sweaty palms, racing heart, shortness of break….you observe the sensations and tell yourself…..wow, I am feeling stress right now….this is my body sending me a message that I am in danger.
REFRAME YOUR THOUGHTS
Notice what you are thinking. Often, we feel stress when we believe something is outside of our control. But if we pause and talk to ourselves “I can handle this” “I have felt stress before and handled challenges in the past,” I am capable of handling this now”.
“Even though I feel stress now, I know this is temporary. The belief that we will overcome get through the event causing the stress shifts the focus from something out of our control and puts us back in the driver’s seat.
TAKE A BREATH
By taking deep breaths in and slow and steady exhales, we tone our Vagus nerve and ignite our parasympathetic system. This begins the stress recovery process. Our body begins to calm down and come to a state known as “rest and digest”. This brings our body back into balance.
Another way to combat stress is to practice with active stress training. Stress training is learning how to endure stress. The idea is that the more exposure to the stress response we have, we build a tolerance and can take on more stress with less impact. We essentially desensitize ourselves to the stress. Stress training also incorporate skills to fire up our parasympathetic system.
The hormones released in stress recovery include DHEA hormone and nerve growth factor protein, both of which increase neuroplasticity in the brain. In other words, they help your brain learn from experience. DHEA is classified as a neurosteroid; in the same way that steroids help your body grow stronger from physical exercise, DHEA helps your brain grow stronger from psychological challenges. For several hours after you have a strong stress response, the brain is rewiring itself to remember and learn from the experience.
Stress leaves an imprint on our brains. As our brain makes connections, it seeks patterns looking for the most efficient way to keep us safe from danger. It we continue to put ourselves in a position where we feel stress and endure it, we train our brains to become more resilient. We essentially become better at stress.
Chances are you have heard of PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a disorder when a person who has been exposed to a traumatic event continues to be triggered by the event well after the event has passed and there is no more threat. PTSD symptoms include intrusive flashbacks, changes in personality and interferes with daily living. PTSD creates debilitating anxiety and severe depression.
If not treated, PTSD can be fatal. In preparing for environments that have a high potential for PTSD, such as Astronauts in flight, First Responders and soldiers preparing for Military Combat, Stress Inoculation is critical.
Stress Inoculation is stress “practice”. Stress Inoculation Training simulates high stress environments and trains your mind and body to control the response. The process includes:
1. Gaining knowledge and familiarity with a particular stressful environment
2. Developing and practicing psychological task-specific skills and decision making performed under pressure
3. Building confidence in an individual’s capabilities
There are two mental shifts that happen in Stress Inoculation training are:
Mental shift 1: Perceive stress as energy you can harness.
Mental shift 2: Stress will increase your resilience.
In their 20 years of treating and studying trauma survivors, Dennis S. Charney, M.D., of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Steven M. Southwick, M.D., of Yale School of Medicine identified ten common practices in people who have shown resilience in the face of extreme stress:
· Maintaining an optimistic but realistic outlook
· Facing fear (ability to confront one’s fears)
· Relying upon one’s own inner, moral compass
· Turning to religious or spiritual practices
· Seeking and accepting social support
· Learning from and imitating sturdy role models
· Staying physically fit
· Staying mentally sharp
· Cognitive and emotional flexibility (finding a way to accept that which cannot be changed)
· Looking for meaning and opportunity during adversity
Many of the principles are the same in Yoga. It should be no surprise that the very same exercises implemented in inoculation training is practiced in Yoga.
In Yoga, we intentionally alternate between activating the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic system. The alternating between effort and surrender gives us an opportunity to practice enduring that which is uncomfortable and follow with active recovery. This shift from a state of stress to calm allows balance to be restored in our bodies.
· Conscious Breathing – deep, slow, rhythmic breathing from the diaphragm. The slow steady exhale increases lung capacity and activates the Vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system and immediately calms the body.
· Intention Setting – mantras are used to focus thoughts and bring you back to the present moment
· Trusting Intuition – focusing attention inward
· Asanas – moving your body in a specific way
· Muscle Relaxation – relaxing each of the main muscle groups by tensing and releasing muscles in a deliberate way.
· Mindfulness – noticing what negative thoughts come up and replace negative internal dialog with positive, encouraging statements.
· Meditation – letting breath, mind and body completely release.
Stress is a part of life. Embrace it. Make it your friend. Know that stress is merely a message telling you to pay attention. Let the feelings associated with stress be something you strive for and propel you to accomplish great things. They say that bravery is not the absence of fear but facing fear head on. Treat stress in the same way.
Remind yourself YOU’VE GOT THIS.
Jen Vallens - 2020