How to Work With, Not Against, Stress

Stress for Success

For years, health care professionals (including many therapists) have advised their patients to live as stress-free as possible. They’ve cautioned: “Stress kills.”

Recent findings, however, indicate stress is not the lethal culprit we once thought it to be. Science now confirms it is our negatively held beliefs about stress that damage our bodies and (over-time) may spell our demise.

When we struggle, our blood vessels constrict, and this kinetic tension taxes our bodies, triggers inflammation, weakens arteries and veins, and leads to disease (think: dis-ease).

It’s now clear that struggle, not stress, is the Grim Reaper’s best friend: Simply put, It is not the actual events in our lives but how we perceive these occurrences that determines our emotional – and physical – failures or fortunes.

The Worry About Worry

One popular form of struggle is Worry. It’s the impending nature of this emotional state that’s particularly troubling: Because we can’t respond to something that’s not currently happening, we trick ourselves into believing that habitually ruminating (repetitively worrying) will help us solve our problems. What results, however, is not resolution, but rampant anxiety.

Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due
– William Ralph Inge

Worry is like shadowboxing the “what ifs” of life: throwing punches at dire scenarios that are, more often than not, false alarms. A lawyer friend of mine once stated that many of her clients waste a lot of time worrying about things that have a high probability of never happening. Let me repeat – An attorney told me this: a person whose financial stability involves mitigating risk.

A Constructive Use for Stress

There is hope, however. By identifying and reframing our thoughts during challenging circumstances, we can bypass adverse biological chain-reactions. I believe, with practice, we can repurpose stress and use it to enhance our emotional wellbeing!

The key to using stress beneficially lies within our collective chemistries. We classify oxytocin as a Stress Hormone, but refer to it as “the hug drug,” because it also drives our nurturing instincts.

Babies (in constant need of care) bathe in the stuff. When a baby is hungry, it cries and receives attention from its caregiver. Oxytocin releases because the baby is stressed (hungry), which triggers the action (crying) and ushers the desired result (being fed).

The Pixar movie Inside Out is one entertaining and insightful portrayal of this process. By the film’s finale, we learn that the main character’s sadness provides the resolution to her troubles. We can note her film journey in this way: Stressful events => sadness => Oxytocin release => desire to bond => seeking help => receiving reassurance => happy ending.

The Easy Button

Scientists believe that oxytocin release during dramatic situations dampens physiological stress levels by inhibiting the amygdala.1,2 Blanketed by oxytocin, we can hit the snooze button on our brain-based “fight or flight” alarm clocks, allowing us to reassess our worry and reallocate our reactive fears toward thoughtful responses.

What’s more, those helping others in need also get a feel-good dose of this chemical: Credit oxytocin for banding-us-together when a crisis strikes and know it is the reason why volunteering strengthens emotional wellbeing.3

The Mental Gym

Stress doesn’t have to involve worry or trigger high blood pressure. It is not the stress but the way we perceive this emotion that creates the distinction between health and horror.

Consider this: When we jog a mile, pick up a dumbbell or take a yoga class, we are actually physically stressing our bodies. Yet, these experiences yield positive results; releasing pent-up energy and building our muscles.

What’s more, if we approach these activities from a relaxed psychological perspective our hearts (which also have oxytocin receptors) drink-in this healthy chemical, creating a sense of wellbeing – Runner’s high, anyone?

Stress for Success

So, the next time stress finds you, embrace it with optimism and ease. Know you already have the internal setup that can keep you healthy and happy for years to come.

Share your struggles and successes: In a world full of infectious diseases, Oxytocin is one thing that can be shared for everyone’s benefit.