I used to think about stress the way most other people do: It’s unhealthy and will ruin my life and wellbeing if I don’t get it under control. And the more I felt like I couldn’t get it “under control,” the more I felt like a failure, consequently leading me to feel all of the harmful physical side effects associated with having chronic distress.
But then I uncovered the growing body of work around how developing a new relationship with stress allows it to take on elements eustress, instead of that chronic stress we hear so much about. This innovative and intriguing insight on how our mindset and choices can allow stress to not only be productive, but healthy, for us has totally changed how I approach “stressful” situations in my life, and how I work with them instead of against them.
Let me begin by saying that I absolutely acknowledge the plethora of health studies that credibly show the negative health effects of distress on the body and mind. Our understanding of being stressed first started back in the late thirties with the father of stress, Hans Selye and some very unfortunate rats, with further research since giving us valuable information on how we react to stress on all levels. However, as an integrative healing arts practitioner, I wanted to know--how can I help myself, and in turn others, heal from and work through this hurdle we face on a deeper, integrated level?
“Embracing stress is an act of bravery, one that requires choosing meaning over avoiding discomfort.”
~ Kelly McGonigal, PhD
Before we begin, my first question is, are we willing to challenge our mindset? Can we take a step back and recognize that feelings of stress form around things that we care about, and so, initiate a hormonal response preparing us to reach our desired outcome during times of uncertainty? If these feelings can be considered an indication of where we need to be doing intense personal work, how can we use it as a way to not only empower ourselves, but to manifest the life we truly want?
This is challenging if you’re not in the habit of abundance, or optimistic, mindset, especially when the ruling school of thought surrounding a subject comes from a scarcity mindset that focuses on the problems and delivers most messaging through the form of warnings. For decades we’ve been taught, even conditioned, that our reactions to stress served as survival techniques (Fight, Flight, or Freeze), and are now outdated responses that we need to reign in and get rid of lest we die from them. Its role seems to have truly flipped since the days of Lucy.
We get stressed when our goals are on the line, so we take action. We get stressed when our values are threatened, so we defend them. We get stressed when we need courage. We get stressed so we can connect with others. We get stressed so that we will learn from our mistakes.
~Kelly McGonigal, PhD
Fighting against stress is like fighting with an old friend; one who’s genuinely confused over why you’re avoiding them, when they’ve saved your life countless times. I invite you to begin shifting your mindset about stress from scarcity (stress is my enemy) to abundance (stress is my ally). By inviting this ally in to help you do the life enhancing work for which it is made, you can begin uncovering the work on your physical and energetic planes that you’ve been covering up or procrastinating.
“Invite the opponent to be an ally again.”
The team of hormones that stress has at its disposal in order to aid us include cortisol, DHEA, adrenaline, and oxytocin. Each of these play a vital role in manifesting the best possible outcome in a day-to-day stressful situation or when reliving past traumatic events. They’ve proven to be such valuable allies in the healing process that they are used in therapies to prevent or treat PTSD, to treat patients undergoing traumatic surgery, to minimize traumatic stress symptoms, and to improve quality of life after surgery. So let’s interact with them in a co-creative way!
Cortisol is the stress hormone. All those stress related diseases and negative health effects? It’s this bad boy. But who doesn’t get a good thrill from the James Dean’s and Danny Zuko’s? Cortisol’s main role is to turn sugar and fat into energy, as well as suppress digestion, reproduction, and growth so that all available energy can be reserved for your body and brain in preparation for the work you’re about to undertake. This teammate is the one who pushes the envelope, and the one we can enjoy the ride with. Cortisol says, "It's time to stop everything else, and put all our energy into this. Let's go!" The same intensity we experience from racing down the road to the finish line can be tapped into with cortisol as we work to integrate the creative energies of stress into our mindset.
We have the innate ability to empower ourselves and re-route our body’s focus to responding in an efficient and effective way during stressful situations because of this hormone. It allows us to get the job done without having to worry about little things like, oh, I don’t know, taking a bathroom break in the middle of our big speech? And just like the bad boy can take it a little too far sometimes, we have to be willing to say, “You better shape up!” One way to do this is to tap into our next stress ally, DHEA.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), is our nurse, or as I like to think of it, my Madam Pomfrey. This hormone encourages neural stem cell growth during stressful situations, speeds up wound repair, and enhances immune function. Interestingly enough, if you can welcome an abundance mindset of wanting to work with stress instead of against it or away from it, you can increase the levels of this hormone, allowing you to reduce your risk of anxiety, depression, and other diseases we associate with stress. By taking a positive view on stress, we encourage increased DHEA levels; this allows us to keep the growth ratio between it and cortisol at a healthy balance.
Paired with adrenaline, this stress response is almost like our own personal Richard Simmons, a hype man supporting us as we rise to the challenge. We experience increased confidence, better concentration, and perform at our all-time best. They allow us to tap into that hyper-focus and sense of peace some people confuse with calmness, often exhibited by musicians, surgeons, or gamers. This is key when we’re working on focusing on manifesting those big intentions we’ve set, especially when under pressure.
Each of us has consciously experienced the feelings and results of adrenaline because it is a stress hormone that we’re taught to identify, and even pursue, sometimes. It’s also the perfect example of how our mindset can affect the results we get based on what we expect. Think of a time when you had to perform at your best, and you were excited about what you were getting to do, even if you were a little (or very!) nervous. I’m sure you experienced an exhilarating rush of adrenaline. Racing pulse. Sweaty palms. Increased energy. The confidence that you were about to rock at whatever you were about to do. (This is the perfect example of eustress, by the way.) Like me, you probably had one of the most rewarding, memorable, and congratulatory experiences of your life.
Now think of a time when you were about to do something, and the thought of it was agonizing. Again, racing pulse and sweaty palms, but the energy turned into “jitters” and the confidence turned into “nerves.” Even now, as you relive the memory, you cringe and become physically uncomfortable. What was different? Your mindset about what you were engaging in. When we are able to shift every problem into opportunity, we begin to understand that when we feel the first physical indicators of adrenaline, it’s time to succeed. Our body is literally kicking into overdrive so that the best possible performance happens. We don’t need to “calm down.” We need to get pumped! We can be confident knowing that our body is supporting us to do our best work and reach the most desirable outcome in any given “stressful” situation.
Of the four members on this team, oxytocin is perhaps the easiest one for us to acknowledge as an ally due to its very nature. This team member can be imagined as the “mama” of the group. We typically feel this hormone kicking in during social stress so that we are driven to connect with others and seek comfort. You may have even heard it referred to as the “cuddle hormone.” Tapping into this ally allows us to manifest more meaningful relationships with others by enhancing our empathy and intuition.
It also instills a sense of bravery so that we can face challenges and take a stand in times where we feel stressed but passionate. (I always like to think of the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, here.) It challenges you to be your best self, even when you’re afraid of what that might mean for you socially. Oxytocin asks you to assess who your support network is and reach out to it.
Our relationship with stress opens the doorway to engage, connect, and grow.
Shifting into an abundance mindset is going to feel downright hokey sometimes. We’re not used to talking to ourselves (or anyone, for that matter) like we live in a Leave it to Beaver episode. However, speaking from a place of positive energy means mindfully choosing your words and acknowledging where the stress is manifesting. Drop a few F bombs or tap into your inner Queen B if you have to, but keep coming back to “I’m excited!” instead of, “I’m nervous!
Remember that stress is asking you to pay attention to what’s unhealthy in your life. When it becomes your ally, you can begin to:
acknowledge the feelings and thoughts around the stressful event or circumstance
process those feelings and thoughts in order to develop a plan for how to discover its purpose
find support to overcome, remove, or change the root cause of the stressful feelings and physical reactions
discover the opportunity in the challenge
Stress is also persistent, and will continue to knock on our door. We can choose to invite the insight it gives us into our situation (fruit basket in-hand), or turn away until the knocking becomes banging we can’t ignore. Once we engage with it, we have the opportunity to mindfully acknowledge our thoughts, feelings, and emotions around the stressful situation, and manifest a positive outcome--whether that’s in the form of improving, shifting, or removing the trigger of our stress.
Bottom Line: Use the creative energy stress is giving you to manifest the things that will improve your life instead of wasting all of it on trying to make stress go away.
There is so much more to offer on this topic, and so many areas I want to explore with you! Transforming mindset around stress and our relationship with it is just one area I plan to cover this January in my “Co-Creating Your Best Life” program. I’ll be providing techniques, practices, and one-on-one coaching on how to be successful at inviting stress into your life as an ally, and healing the connection you have with it.
Until the next,
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They’ve proven to be... de Quervain, Dominique J-F., Dorothee Bentz, Tanja Micahel, Olivia C. Bolt, Brenda K. Wiederhold, Jurgen Margra, and Frank H. Wilhelm. “Glucocorticoids Enhance Extinction-Based Psychotherapy.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 16 (2011): 6621-25. De Quervain, Dominique J-F., and Jurgen Margraf. “Glucocorticoids for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Phobias: A Novel Therapeutic Approach.” European Journal of Pharmacology 583, no. 2 (2008): 365-71.
Your mindset about... Jamieson, Jeremy P., Wendy Berry Mendes, Erin Blackstock, and Toni Schmader. “Turning the Knots in Your Stomach into Bows: Reappraising Arousal Improves Performance on the GRE.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46, no. I (2010): 208-12.
We experience increased... Peifer, Corinna. “Psychophysiological Correlates of Flow-Experience.” Advances in Flow Research, edited by Stephan Engeser, 139-64. New York: Springer, 2012.