The Other Side of Stress

For decades, stress has had a bad name. But new re­search is shin­ing light on the mis­con­cep­tion that it’s in­evitably bad for our health. In fact, make stress your friend, and you might even be­come health­ier.

Good - - CONTENTS - Words Natalie Cyra

The new way of look­ing at it and why it’s good for us

It’s a Wed­nes­day morn­ing and I’m tak­ing a break from the of­fice - tem­porar­ily swap­ping my desk for a mas­sage ta­ble. I’m ly­ing face down, col­lect­ing my thoughts as I in­hale the calm­ing scent of Rock Rose that is dif­fus­ing in a bowl be­neath me. The door softly closes be­hind my ther­a­pist, who asks me to leave my qualms out­side the room for the du­ra­tion of my treat­ment, be­fore be­gin­ning to work a per­son­alised blend of po­tent es­sen­tial oils into and around the knots in my body. I won­der if she’ll com­ment on these ar­eas of ten­sion, where my re­cent stress has phys­i­cally man­i­fested it­self. At present, they feel glar­ingly ob­vi­ous. But I am not alone. Whether it is from loom­ing dead­lines, fi­nan­cial or do­mes­tic trou­bles, heart­break, or work­ing longer hours, many of us can at­test to feel­ing stressed more fre­quently. In fact, in the lat­est Well­ness in the Work­place sur­vey of busi­nesses rep­re­sent­ing 93,000 New Zealand em­ploy­ees, more than 30 per cent said their stress lev­els had risen in the last two years. It re­ally has be­come an epi­demic in mod­ern life. How­ever, de­spite nu­mer­ous stud­ies and re­ports sug­gest­ing stress is in­evitably detri­men­tal to our health, it re­ally needn’t be the vil­lain we all fear it to be. It can ac­tu­ally – to an ex­tent – be in­cred­i­bly healthy for us. The key is to un­der­stand what it does to our body, and change our per­cep­tion of its pur­pose: to help, rather than to harm. If we can do this, as well as find ways to find calm faster dur­ing pe­ri­ods of stress, we can be health­ier and more re­silient in this fast-paced world in which we live. In his new book, Sweat Equity: Peak Per­for­mance for the Lead­ers of To­day and To­mor­row, au­thor and well­ness ex­pert Greg Stark ex­plains that when we be­come stressed, our body re­sponds by re­leas­ing an in­flux of stress hor­mones in­clud­ing cor­ti­sol and adren­a­line. These hor­mones con­strict our blood ves­sels (one of the rea­sons that chronic stress is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease) to send more oxy­gen to our mus­cles, pre­par­ing them to tackle the stress­ful task at hand. Other things start hap­pen­ing too – our heart rate, blood pres­sure and per­spi­ra­tion lev­els in­crease, and our breath­ing may quicken. This is our sym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem tak­ing over, also known as our ‘fight-or-flight re­sponse’. “With­out this re­ac­tion our abil­ity to avoid threats and per­form de­mand­ing tasks sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ishes. We need stress to per­form, to grow and get fit­ter, smarter and stronger. Stress is our friend… it is in­evitable,” says Stark.

“If you be­lieve stress is bad for your health you make it toxic. If you be­lieve stress is good, it be­comes your great­est per­for­mance en­hancer.” Greg Stark

How­ever, our body is not de­signed to con­stantly be in fight-or-flight mode. If we are in this mode for a sus­tained pe­riod, our bod­ies must work harder for longer – and that’s when stress comes with neg­a­tive health impacts. We should be aim­ing to ac­ti­vate our parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem for the most part – also known as the ‘rest and digest re­sponse’, where our heart rate is lower, our breath­ing calmer. It’s all about cre­at­ing a bet­ter bal­ance be­tween these re­sponses.

Emma Fer­ris, a Queenstown-based phys­io­ther­a­pist, breath­ing coach and di­rec­tor of The But­ter­fly Ef­fect, an on­line re­source of­fer­ing tech­niques for bet­ter breath­ing, stress man­age­ment and op­ti­mal well­ness, says stress oc­curs in lots of dif­fer­ent ways, whether it’s emo­tional, psy­cho­log­i­cal, or phys­i­o­log­i­cal. “Peo­ple don’t see the trig­gers are of­ten com­ing from lots of dif­fer­ent ar­eas of their lives, and then it has a full-on over­all im­pact on the ner­vous sys­tem, and how we sleep and how we rest.”

But, says Fer­ris, “If we can un­der­stand stress, learn to love it and then learn to change the things that im­pact the way we think [about it], we can turn down that stress re­sponse that is finely tuned in our body. It’s im­por­tant for let­ting us sur­vive,” she says.

Make stress your friend

Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity health psy­chol­o­gist Kelly McGoni­gal spent years spread­ing the mes­sage that stress makes you sick. Then one day, she changed her mind.

Her 2013 TED Talk, ‘How to make stress your friend’, where she dis­cusses re­search sug­gest­ing stress may only be bad for you if you be­lieve that to be the case, has been viewed more than 15 mil­lion times.

McGoni­gal’s change of mind be­gan with re­search that in­cluded an eight-year study in the United States which tracked 30,000 adults. It ini­tially asked them how much stress they ex­pe­ri­enced in the past year, as well as whether they be­lieved stress was harm­ful to their health. The re­searchers then used pub­lic death records to find out who died.

The find­ings showed that peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of stress in the pre­vi­ous year had a 43 per cent in­creased risk of dy­ing – but that was only true for the peo­ple who also be­lieved that stress is harm­ful for your health.

Ex­plains McGoni­gal, “Peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of stress

but did not view stress as harm­ful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the low­est risk of dy­ing of any­one in the study, in­clud­ing peo­ple who had rel­a­tively lit­tle stress.

“The re­searchers es­ti­mated that over the eight years they were track­ing deaths, 182,000 Amer­i­cans died pre­ma­turely, not from stress, but from the be­lief that stress is bad for you.

“That is over 20,000 deaths a year. Now, if that es­ti­mate is cor­rect, that would make be­liev­ing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death in the United States in a year, killing more peo­ple than skin can­cer, HIV/AIDS and homi­cide,” she says.

This led McGoni­gal to won­der whether chang­ing how you think about stress could make you health­ier. “Here the sci­ence says yes. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s re­sponse to stress,” she says.

There­fore, in­stead of per­ceiv­ing our body’s changes dur­ing stress as the first step to bad health, we should rather view these changes as signs our body is be­com­ing en­er­gised to help us meet a chal­lenge.

That is ex­actly what par­tic­i­pants were told in a study con­ducted at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, adds McGoni­gal. “Be­fore they went through the so­cial stress test, they were taught to re­think their stress re­sponse as help­ful. That pound­ing heart is pre­par­ing you for ac­tion. If you’re breath­ing faster, it’s no prob­lem. It’s get­ting more oxy­gen to your brain. And par­tic­i­pants who learned to view the stress re­sponse as help­ful for their per­for­mance, well, they were less stressed out, less anx­ious, more con­fi­dent…” she says.

Seek sup­port and hug it out

They say a prob­lem shared is a prob­lem halved, and new re­search shows this can be the case when it comes to stress. Seek­ing sup­port from loved ones, show­ing em­pa­thy and hav­ing it re­turned can re­duce our fight-or-flight stress re­sponse. This is to do with an­other stress hor­mone, oxy­tocin, which is also re­leased when peo­ple hug one an­other.

Says McGoni­gal, “Oxy­tocin is a neuro-hor­mone. It fine-tunes your brain’s so­cial in­stincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen close re­la­tion­ships. Oxy­tocin makes you crave phys­i­cal con­tact with your friends and fam­ily. It en­hances your em­pa­thy. It even makes you more will­ing to help and sup­port the peo­ple you care about.”

Stud­ies have shown oxy­tocin lev­els are higher un­der stress­ful con­di­tions, such as so­cial iso­la­tion and un­happy re­la­tion­ships. One study re­ported in Psy­cho­so­matic Medicine, for ex­am­ple, found that women who re­ported more gaps in their so­cial re­la­tion­ships and less pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships with their sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers had higher lev­els of oxy­tocin and cor­ti­sol than those re­port­ing bet­ter re­la­tion­ships.

Most peo­ple don’t un­der­stand oxy­tocin is a stress hor­mone,

McGoni­gal adds. When it’s re­leased, oxy­tocin mo­ti­vates you to seek sup­port. “Your bi­o­log­i­cal stress re­sponse is nudg­ing you to tell some­one how you feel, in­stead of bot­tling it up.”

Em­pa­thetic lis­ten­ing also helps pro­duce oxy­tocin, as psy­chol­o­gist Arthur Ciaram­i­coli ex­plains in his

book The Stress So­lu­tion: Us­ing Em­pa­thy and Cog­ni­tive Be­hav­ioral Ther­apy to Re­duce Anx­i­ety

and De­velop Re­silience. He sug­gests be­ing more mind­ful of the ways we com­mu­ni­cate with loved ones. “Learn­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with em­pa­thy can go a long way to­ward build­ing more pos­i­tiv­ity in your re­la­tion­ships and re­duc­ing your stress,” he says. “If we all fo­cused more on lis­ten­ing and un­der­stand­ing each other, the world would be a lot less stress­ful – and a lot hap­pier – place to live.”

For­est bathing

Ex­er­cise and spend­ing time in na­ture is also a great way to re­main in rest and digest mode. As New Zealan­ders we are in­cred­i­bly blessed with our sur­round­ings, and we should all be aim­ing to spend more time out­side. A rel­a­tively new term to the western world is ‘ for­est bathing’ also known as Shin­rin-yoku For­est Ther­apy, which trans­lates to ‘ tak­ing in the for­est at­mos­phere’ in Ja­panese. This was de­vel­oped in Ja­pan in the 1980s and has be­come a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple in pre­ven­ta­tive health­care and heal­ing in Ja­panese medicine. Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown spend­ing time in the woods can boost im­mune func­tion, re­duce stress hor­mones and cause you to phys­i­cally re­lax.

…it makes the heart grow stronger too

Oxy­tocin doesn’t only act on your brain. As a nat­u­ral anti-in­flam­ma­tory, it also pro­tects our heart and helps blood ves­sels stay re­laxed in pe­ri­ods of stress too, adds McGoni­gal.

“Your heart has re­cep­tors for this hor­mone, and oxy­tocin helps heart cells re­gen­er­ate and heal from any stress-in­duced dam­age. This stress hor­mone strength­ens your heart.”

There­fore, by sim­ply seek­ing close re­la­tion­ships more of­ten and en­hanc­ing so­cial con­tact, our stress re­sponse bal­ance im­proves.

“When you choose to con­nect with oth­ers un­der stress, you can cre­ate re­silience. Stress gives us ac­cess to our hearts. The com­pas­sion­ate heart that finds joy and mean­ing in con­nect­ing with oth­ers, and yes, your pound­ing phys­i­cal heart, work­ing so hard to give you strength and en­ergy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, 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,” she says.

The power of touch

There’s a rea­son why I took a break from work for a mas­sage. “Ev­ery per­son car­ries stress in dif­fer­ent ways,” sug­gests Stark, and for me, I knew my body and mind needed some at­ten­tion. There is a lot to be said about the ef­fect of touch on stress, with stud­ies find­ing that even a sin­gle, five-minute mas­sage can lead to a re­duc­tion in the level of cor­ti­sol in the blood.

My aro­mather­apy mas­sage was more than just a lux­u­ri­ous spa treat­ment. Us­ing es­sen­tial oils is an­other re­searched-backed way to nur­ture mind­ful­ness and help al­le­vi­ate stress.

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