We are often told to avoid stress. Stress is toxic. Stress can deteriorate the body. Stress is well…stressful. We often see articles about reducing stress or how to avoid stress. But in a given life, stress is often unavoidable.
But stress might have been given a bad wrap sheet. The origin of the work stress was originally used by architects to calculate how much weight or force a structure could withstand. So the architects are thinking about how strong of winds a building can take until it is knocked down or how much weight a bridge can hold up without collapsing. As we typically talk about stress on the body, we are talking how much work and mental and/or physical pressure we can take.
If we use the example of the bridge, a bridge usually can only hold up so many cars before it starts falling apart. But if we tried to avoid all stress by not allowing on any cars, then it would defeat the purpose of having a bridge. So the balance is how much stress can we take on to have purpose yet still not fall apart.
In her book, the Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist and researcher, explores how stress can be helpful. She differentiates between toxic stress, which is what we are used to hearing about, from three other types of stress.
Toxic Stress, or stress that is too much to handle, is particularly bad when we experience it chronically. We are used to hearing about our Fight or Flight response which activates when we are in danger, both mentally and physically. When we go into this state we release a hormone called cortisol which helps strengthen us and keep us in that Fight or Flight response until the danger has passed. A little bit is fine, but chronic cortisol can erode our bodies. In the bridge example, this chronic stress would wear down the structure making it more likely to collapse and unable to take on as many cars to cross it. Once the structure errodes we can not take on as much as we could before until we had time to repair. This is accurate and how we are used to talking about stress, but what are other ways that we can talk about it?
One other option is called Tend and Befriend. This response is a way that social species respond to stress instead of fighting or fleeing. With Tend and Befriend we focus on taking care of eachother and ‘tend’ to the young and when their safety is in question they seek out their social group to gather resources and build a mutual defense. In this strategy to stress we are seeking out others to support us. In Fight or Flight we are a solo individual trying to handle the problem but with our community we can find new ways of looking at problems or feel support just by the presence of others. Social bonding releases oxytocin which relieves the corrosive side of cortisol. Once we feel connected to others we feel we can handle more than we could before.
Another way of looking at stress is to Rise to the Challenge. McGonigal in her book states that when we change our minds about stress, our responses to it changes as well. We reshape our perceived threat into a challenge that we want to accomplish. It is taking our stress response and recognizing what we are stressing about is important to us. Someone might be stressed about a first date because they want to make a good impression. Or the stress might be from a work project that you want to impress your supperiors with. All these things are important to you. If you are stressed about an activity then it means you care about the the activity and the stress can give you strength to handle what is important.
I also call this leaning into anxiety. Our anxiety is telling us something is important. As long as we don’t let the stress or anxiety stop us from moving forward they can help us reach our goals. Todd is stress about proposing to his long time girlfriend. If he looks at his stress as a good thing he might be about to recognize that it is telling him that he really cares for his girlfriend and want to move forward with her. Suddenly the stress doesn’t feel as toxic and he is still stressed but doesn’t feel as weighed down. In fact now that he knows how important he is about it he is excited about it. Our body changes in the realization as well. When we reframe our stress into excitement something happens in the brain. Another hormone DHEA(Dehydroepiandrosterone) is release which seems to reduce the negative aspects of cortisol and reduces anxiety.
The last stress response in Learning and Growth. This is the view that we need stress in order to grow and learn. Exercise is a perfect example of this kind of stress. When going to the gym at first we are not very good at some of the exercises. Maybe we are good at a few, but we are just starting the practice. As we gradually keep going back to add more weights or spend more time on a cardio machine. This is literally adding more stress to the body. But as we add incremental amount of weights or time (stress) to our routines we can suddenly handle more as time and training goes on. We are strengthening our bodies to handle more stress than it could when we first started. When you are stressed it is good to ask yourself how can you learn or grow from the experience. How are you challenging yourself to move forward.
Let’s looks at an example using the different stress response. Leah is going to be giving a big speech at a professional conference. It is about the work she is doing, which she really enjoys. One big catch is she hates public speaking. She usually tries to avoid it at all cost. But she has committed in giving this presentation and she can’t help but think about all the people that will be going there. Every time she does think about it her chest becomes tight and she starts breathing faster. Leah starts thinking about maybe she should back out from the talk or maybe pretend to be sick (Fight or Flight).
But then Leah starts to rethink about her stressful response. She really values the work she does and she is really excited about sharing it with others. It is important for her to put this work out into the world (Rise to the Challenge). She also knows some of her friends will be there, particularly her work colleagues. She tells her friends and colleagues about her feeling nervous about public speaking. Some of them validate her feelings about how stressful it can be. They offer to let her practice with them and give her feedback. One friend recommends looking at friendly faces during the talk and offers to be smiling and nodding during the talk to help encourage her. Suddenly Leah feels a lot of support (Tend and Befriend). Leah then realizes she wants to get better at public speaking and this is an excellent opportunity to try it out. She learns a lot from her friends when she does the practice with them and knows there will be more things to learn. She might not do the presentation perfectly but she might about able to learn what works and what didn’t work from this presentation (Learning and Grow). Suddenly Leah feel much better about giving the talk.
Stress is a tool that we can use. If it is chronic then is can cause harm but finding new ways to approach stress can help us live a purposeful life where we reach our goals, connect with others and grow as a person. We can not achieve these if we avoid stress or view it as the enemy. We can learn our limits in how much we can take, but we can also push those limits to make ourselves stronger. How might you reevaluate some of the stress in your life?