Transform Your Stress
If I were to ask you, how much stress have you experienced over the last year, what would your answer be?
Most people are likely to claim they’ve experienced a significant amount of stress, the source of which ranging from financial struggles to health concerns to work, business, relationships or children.
If I were to ask you whether you viewed stress as having a positive or negative effect on your life what would your answer be? Most people are likely to state that they view stress as being is bad for them.
This is hardly surprising when the history of stress science says that stress kills brain cells, stress is the enemy. We’ve been conditioned to view stress in this way.
Let’s consider past experiments that were designed to test how humans respond to stress. Firstly, these experiments were conducted on lab rats. Secondly, the form of stress that they endured was somewhat different from what we endure in our daily lives, it wasn’t family issues, politics or balancing busy schedules, it was shock therapy and drowning in cold water! Essentially, it was the hunger games for rats.
Nevertheless, scientists concluded that if stress is bad for rats it must be bad for humans too. But, we are not lab rats! The tests carried out on these poor creatures were completely devoid of meaning. Humans have a natural capacity to fight change.
THE NEW SCIENCE OF STRESS
In her Ted Talk, ‘How to make stress your friend’ Dr McGonigal states that the new science of stress has changed. This feeling, she claims, is my body helping me to rise to the challenge and states that we perform better if we are under pressure. This pressure, she says, will result in smarter decision making and a learned resilience. It also increases our brain volume, learning and growth.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is said to occur when something you care about is at risk. This is why some of life’s most joyful events cause us great levels of stress, for example getting married, going on holiday, starting a new business and relocating.
HOW OUR BODIES RESPOND TO STRESS IS AFFECTED GREATLY BY OUR MINDSET AND PERSPECTIVE
In her book, ‘The Upside of Stress’, Dr Kelly McGonigal reveals the results of a study carried out in the US in 1998 that tracked stress levels in 30000 adults for 8 years. They were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, ‘do you believe stress is harmful to your health?’. The results showed that high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43%. However, that risk applied only to people who believed that stress was harming their health.
Those who reported high stress levels but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. To the contrary, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress. Thus, researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people, it was their stress levels combined with the belief that stress is harmful that killed them. It was estimated that over the 8 years, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely simply because they viewed stress as harmful to their health. That’s over 20000 deaths a year! Making the belief that stress is bad for you the 15th leading cause of death in the US, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/Aids and homicide.
THE POWER OF LABELS
In another study carried out by A. J Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Mind & Body Lab (MBL), at Stanford University, titled the ‘Shake Tasting Study’, participants were invited to try a milkshake that had been labelled ‘Indulgence: Decadence You Deserve’, with a nutritional label showing 620 calories and 30 grams of fat. They were invited back the following week to try a shake called ‘Sensi-Shake: Guilt Free Satisfaction’, with 140 calories and zero grams of fat. As they drank the shakes blood samples were taken from each participant so that they were able to measure changes in their blood levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone). Clearly one would expect an indulgence and a health shake to have very different effects on ghrelin levels, and this is exactly what happened.
However, the shake labels were a sham, in fact on both occasions all participants had been given the same 380 calorie shake, so there should have been no difference in how their digestive tracts responded, but just because they believed that the shake was an indulgent treat, their ghrelin levels dropped 3 times as much as when they were under the impression that it was a diet drink. So, they got the outcome they expected. Their belief system was powerful enough to influence their bodies reactions to what they were consuming.
These studies prove that our perception of a situation alters our bodies responses to it.
There are 2 stress mindsets:
1. Believes that stress is harmful and it should therefore be avoided. People who view stress in this way often disconnect and engage in bad habits they believe are helping them to escape the negative effects of stress.
2. Believes that stress is enhancing, therefore the effects are positive and should be utilised.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF STRESS?
Some of the benefits of stress are as follows:
- It focuses our attention
- It heightens our awareness
- It increases our motivation
- It mobilises our energy
- It activates our social instincts
- It encourages social connection
- It enhances social ability
- It decreases fear and increases courage
- It restores the nervous system balance
- It processes and integrates the experience
- It helps the brain to learn and grow
- It motivates us to be more successful
- It gives us courage
- It makes us work harder
- It enhances our creativity and intelligence
In 1915 Walter Cannon coined the stress term ‘Fight or Flight Response’ during an experiment in which he put cats and dogs together. The animals either faced the threat and rose to the challenge, or they fled. This is a threat response driven by fear, it prepares the body for a physical attack. It provides energy and unbelievable strength as we experience a chemical rush of cortisol and adrenaline. It is harmful for us because our blood vessels constrict.
AN ALTERNATIVE RESPONSE TO STRESS
Neuroscientist John Coates has identified a more helpful response to stress, what he calls ‘Challenge Response.’ Dissimilar to the fight or flight response it makes us more focused but not fearful. In this state, we are fully engaged, our confidence is increased, our concentration enhanced and our performance is at its peak. Our blood vessels stay relaxed.
The challenge response means we see the situation as something we can handle. Whether we see the situation as something we can handle depends on how we interpret it, it is affected by our mindset. It decreases fear and gives us courage, strengthens our heart and makes us brave.
How we respond to stress is impacted by many different factors, our life history, genetics, our parents, our life experiences and so forth. The good news is that these adaptations aren’t permanent and every moment of stress is an opportunity to transform our stress instincts.
ENACTING CHANGE – HOW TO SHIFT STRESS TO A CHALLENGE RESPONSE
When we change our mind about stress we change our bodies responses to it. How we think about our ability to handle stress determines how we act.
Here’s an exercise to help shift your stress mindset:
1. Think about a source of stress in your daily life.
2. Consider the resources you have available to help you face this challenge.
3. Take notice of how your body responds to this stress. Then consider the activities you do to avoid this stress.
4. Acknowledge your personal strengths that could help you to face this challenge, these could include things like a love of learning, critical thinking, courage/bravery, honesty and integrity, kindness and generosity, leadership, self-control, gratitude, hope/optimism, humour and enthusiasm.
5. Remember past experiences when you succeeded with a similar challenge and think about how you’ve prepared for this challenge or situation.
6. Imagine the support you have available to you, do you have family or friends who can help you? Perhaps someone who has faced a similar challenge? Or perhaps you have religious or spiritual practices that could help?
During this exercise it’ll become clear that we do not need to change things, we need to change our mindset. It’s about empowering yourself to believe in yourself. The process for shifting our mindset is as simple as this 3 step process:
1. Learn a new point of view.
2. Apply your new mindset
3. Share the idea with others
STRESSFUL LIVES ARE MEANINGFUL LIVES
Research shows that stressed people are more satisfied with their lives and those who lead meaningful busy lives worry more yet they are happier overall.
RETHINK STRESS – YOUR VALUES
When you believe stress is harmful anything that feels a bit stressful is an intrusion. If this is you, it’s time to refocus on your values. Science claims that writing about your values is one of the most effective psychological activities.
Take time to consider what your primary values are, for example they could include ‘seek happiness’, ‘Maintain a life balance’, ‘explore’, ‘strive for continuous improvement’, ‘belong to a community’. Any stressful endeavour is all the more empowering when there’s a reason why you’re doing it.
REALISE: The 1st step to transforming your stress is to acknowledge that you are having it, this is mindfulness. Notice how your body responds to this stress, for e.g. is your heart pounding, body sweating, shortness of breath?
RECOGNISE: that stress is a response to something you care about, consider the positive motivation behind this stress and then connect it to your values. Consider what is at risk here, why does it matter?
ENERGISE: Use the energy that stress gives you instead of wasting the energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values? Even when you can’t control stress you can still choose how you respond to it.
THE COST OF AVOIDING STRESS
Stressful times can also be times of personal growth or connection. Avoiding stress reduces our sense of belonging and connection, reduces our concentration, energy and self-control. It also increases our risk of depression, conflict and negative events. Avoiding stress can actually lead to more stress. Say for example, we decide against partaking in a particular event for fear of public speaking, this could result in missed opportunities, new connections and friends, a feeling of accomplishment, recognition and invitations to future events.
If we choose to avoid stress by engaging in unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking alcohol, smoking or eating too many unhealthy foods this is only going to lead to a decline in our health and performance. Passive aggressive behaviour only makes things worse and escapism tactics limit what we are able to achieve in the future.
The more we do the more our brains re-wire and the better we get. We can use the energy and stress generated by what we experience to fuel us and make us do better. If we re-shape our view, anxiety becomes energy.
If we’re able to see both sides of stress, if we choose when we embrace it, it can have a positive impact on our lives and increase our motivation to achieve our goals.
If a lighter workload would put you more at ease with your stress levels get in touch to discuss how my online marketing support could bring you some relief.
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