Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.
Stress didn’t always get such a bad rap. In fact, when Stevie Wonder produced his 1966 hit song - “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” - the seminal lyrics soothed the national mood and made us believe all was right. However, stress seems to be finding its way back into our lives.
In evolutionary terms, stress developed out of a need to jolt the body out of homeostasis and perform an action. The “fight or flight” mechanism helped our Paleolithic ancestors find their next meal or dodge becoming one for Megafauna and other predators. Stress was, in other words, “all right, uptight, out of sight.”
But somewhere along the line stress became an enemy. At the turn of the twentieth century, the industrial revolution made a change in human life: it was no longer about survival. Life became about finding meaning, joy and fulfillment. As such, stress become a burden to millions of Americans.
According to the American Institute of Stress, that fight or flight response which was once an evolutionary advantage may be killing you. In fact, 44% of Americans feel more stressed than they did 5 years ago, 1 in 5 feel “extreme stress,” marked by shaking and heart palpitations, and 3 our of 4 doctor visits are for stress-related ailments such as obesity, asthma, depression and diabetes.
Still, a little bit of stress isn’t harmful. When someone feels fear or discomfort, cortisol, the primary stress hormone, is released to regulate many bodily functions including the immune system, digestive function, reproductive system and growth processes, says the Mayo Clinic. However, when too much cortisol is released and the body sustains high levels of stress, we’re left with the kind of chronic stress that’s taking a toll on most Americans.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard the term “stress management” and clicked through dozens of articles on the many ways to do just that in our hyper-kinetic 21st-century lives. Perhaps the answer isn’t in managing stress, rather, how to harness stress in creative and constructive ways. That’s just what Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, suggests in her Ted Talk on the positive view of stress.
In the Ted Talk, McGonigal discusses a longitudinal study of 30,000 adults on their experiences with stress. The participants who believed that stress is harmful to their health saw a 43% increase of dying from stress-related issues. However, this only held true if the participants believed stress was bad for them.
Conversely, the participants who experienced high stress but did not believe it was bad for their health saw the lowest risk of death in the study from stress-related causes. In the end, researchers found over an eight year period that 182,000 participants of the study died - not from stress - but from the belief that stress was harmful to their health.
As such, McGonigal’s Ted Talk reveals a key insight about stress: it doesn’t have to play a negative role in our lives if we don’t let it. A typical stress response is a pounding heart, sweaty palms and shallow breath. She points out that’s totally okay - not the harbinger of chronic disease. In fact, her research found that when participants in the study viewed their stress response as helpful, blood vessels in the body remained relaxed.
So how can we rethink stress as a positive influencer? Start with oxytocin, a neurohormone in the brain. Dubbed the “cuddle hormone” because it’s released when you hug someone, oxytocin fine-tunes us to strengthen close relationships, forming deep bonds which help us better function in a social context. That positive feeling you get from physical contact with friends and family? Oxytocin.
The catch is that oxytocin is as much a part of a person’s stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. Thus, with oxytocin in the equation, our bodies’ natural stress response is to seek out help and support from loved ones. But our actions may not always lead us to seek out help. If you’ve ever felt stress coming down like a crashing wave, instead of shutting down and eating two extra helpings of mac & cheese, try calling a friend instead. The oxytocin released during your stress storm urges you to find help, which in turn, lowers your stress.
In addition to being an anti-inflammatory, oxytocin binds to receptors in the human heart to strengthen its response in times of stress. So a normal functioning human stress response has a built in mechanism for strength and healing of the heart.
When we view stress as something that builds us up - and seek out help from connections to those in our social circles and communities during stressful times - we can live happier and healthier lives.
As a social worker and invitational interventionist, my research on the topic has found 7 ways stress can be a useful motivator:
- Stress helps you problem solve. Often times stress can come from making a big decision at home or at work - financial, personal or otherwise. When this happens, listen closely to your stress because it tells you where your values lie - the things you care about. Let the stress be your compass to direct you toward what matters.
- Stress is a boon to your creativity. In The Confident Leader: How the Most Successful People Go From Effective to Exceptional, author Larina Kase says, “Stress often precedes or accompanies creative breakthroughs. If our minds are totally calm and relaxed, they don’t need a reason to see things differently. We’re likely to feel an increase in stress when we hit on a new path because change is typically associated with new stress.”
- Stress prepares you for big challenges. Does your heart pound and breathing increase when you’re stressed? Those are the signs you’re ready to take on a big challenge. An increase in heart rate and breathing circulates more oxygen to your brain to think about the problem and find a solution, says McGonigal. And more oxygen to the body generates energy for a call to action.
- Stress strengthens your relationships. As McGonigal points out, oxytocin is the hormone that promotes human connection. So if you’re feeling stress, take a walk with a friend around the neighborhood, call a family member or join a book club. Our stress response is healthier when we reach out in time of need.
- Stress can sharpen your memory. Because of the stress hormones released during a normal stress response, you become more focused and alert. This makes your brain hold onto useful information and retrieve it faster for that big presentation or final exam.
- Stress can boost your immune system. The short bursts of stress we feel when faced with a deadline or challenging project gives the immune system a jolt, which strengthens immunity. "When the body responds to stress, it prepares itself for the possibility of injury or infection," says Richard Shelton, MD, vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
- Stress can make you more resilient. Research shows that regular exposure to stressful situations builds up our psychological and emotional responses to maintain a sense of control. For example, “repeated exposure to stressful events gives [Navy SEALs] the chance to develop both a physical and psychological sense of control, so when they're actually in combat they don't just shut down," says Dr. Shelton. Another technique for building resilience is the havening technique. In this newly discovered neurobiological technique, a certified practitioner applies the techniques through touch around the arms, shoulders and face. The technique is shown to release traumatic and stressful memories to build resilience against the pressures of daily life.
To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.