For years, stress has been painted as something to avoid at all costs. But now experts are helping us harness its power…
By Katherine Watt
What comes to mind when you think of being under stress? Feeling overwhelmed and worried? Or pumped up and primed for action? Well, research is revealing that what you expect is exactly what you’ll get. Believe that stress is a positive, enhancing benefit and it will be. Believe it’s debilitating and you’ll find it harder to process.
For years, the prevalent message has been that stress has a negative impact on wellbeing. We are told it increases the risk of everything from heart disease to mental health problems. But now, experts are discovering a flip side: stress can be good for you, and the power to unlock its positivity lies within you.
‘Stress is not just caused by thoughts, but the thoughts that you believe to be true,’ explains Shamash Alidina. Stress is your body’s natural defence to danger. Under stress, your body is flushed with hormones and chemicals to prepare for ‘fight or flight’. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol raise blood pressure and heart rate and pump blood and oxygen to your muscles and brain, heightening alertness and narrowing focus.
In the distant past this allowed our ancestors to act fast in the face of danger, and even today, in extreme situations such as a fire or traffic accident it could help you rescue yourself and others quickly and instinctively. But, if you’re stuck in an everyday situation – such as when someone cuts you up in traffic – and this response kicks in, you don’t need to fight or run away, so you can’t use up the chemicals your body has produced to stimulate you into action. Over time, this can damage your health by keeping your blood pressure high, overworking your heart, and affecting your metabolism.
Why attitude counts
Encountering some stress is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to make you ill. For eight years, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison tracked 28,000 people and asked them how stress affected their lives. The study found that having lots of stress was not linked with premature death. However, having lots of life stress and believing it’s doing harm meant the risk of premature death increased by 43 per cent. Those who had lots of stress in their life but didn’t view it as detrimental actually had the lowest risk of dying – even lower than those who reported barely any stress at all.
So start thinking about everyday stress as a positive, energising force, and you can protect yourself from some of its damage and use it to learn, grow and thrive. It’s time to get better at stress…
Name that feeling
The first step in shifting the way you think about stress is simply to acknowledge it. Science shows that giving a label or a name to what you are feeling – a technique called ‘affect labelling’ – helps distance you from the emotion and allows you think more sharply. In fact, neuroscientists at Harvard found that this technique actually moves activity in the brain from the amygdala (the hotbed of emotions) to the prefrontal cortex (the wiser, more rational part of the brain). This helps you respond positively to stressful situations.
Try this: Get into a daily habit of labelling your thoughts. ‘The idea is to be curious about stress, rather than fixated on lowering it,’ explains Shamash. When stress bubbles up, pause and notice it. Label what you feel without judgement from your inner critic. At the same time, lightly place a hand over your heart or stomach. This helps relax your body while sending messages to your brain to turn off the fight or flight response.
Focus on what you can influence
Stress can quickly spiral out of control if you start worrying about the worst that might happen. This negative thought pattern narrows focus onto things that are beyond your power, placing you in what’s called a ‘threat’ state, where your blood vessels constrict. If you concentrate instead on things you can change, you adjust your physiological response and enter a more positive ‘challenge’ state, in which stress prepares your body to motivate and fuel you by pumping more blood and creating less resistance in the blood vessels.
Try this: ‘If you’re about to deliver an important speech, for example, focus on your posture, on maintaining eye contact, or on speaking clearly advises Marc Jones, professor of stress and emotion at Staffordshire University, whose research revealed how being in a challenge state changes your body’s response.
Keep on moving
Studies show that exercising regularly may help give the body the physical conditioning it needs to bounce back better from stressful events. It’s thought to work by giving your blood pressure and metabolism just the right amount of increased pressure, so that it doesn’t consider any future physiological effects of stress as too much to deal with.
Try this: Next time you feel worries getting on top of you, write them down in a short list, then do some exercise while trying to keep your mind focused just on what your body is doing. Yoga, boxing, or instructor-led classes are good, as your brain is just thinking about the exercise, rather than worrying. Revisit your list afterwards, and you’re likely to have more clarity than before.
Strength train for stress
Like anything, the way to get better at dealing with stress is to practise. We all have the power to consciously break hardwired thought patterns and choose to approach stress with what author Due Quach calls ‘calm clarity’. According to Due, people function in three emotional states: Brain 1.0, when you act out of fear and self-preservation, Brain 2.0, when you chase short-term rewards at the expense of long-term wellbeing, and ‘Brain 3.0’, which is an optimal state of mind in which your actions are aligned with your core values. This latter state is ‘calm clarity’. ‘The brain is continuously changing its neural wiring as a result of life experience,’ explains Due, whose book Calm Clarity: How to Use Science to Rewire Your Brain for Greater Wisdom, Fulfillment and Joy (£12.99, amazon.co.uk) will be published in May. To change how you react to stress, you can learn to self-trigger neural pathways in Brain 3.0, which naturally calms your reactive Brain 1.0. You can do this via activities such as meditation, yoga or breathing exercises. ‘It’s like strength training so you can carry a heavier stress load whenever necessary,’ adds Due.
Try this: The easiest way to calm your reactive Brain 1.0 is through breathing deeply and slowly. Breathe in slowly for a count of 6 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, then exhale slowly for 6 seconds and hold for 3 seconds. ‘Continuing this 6-3-6-3 cycle for a couple minutes is very calming,’ says Due.
Reach out to others
One of the best ways to protect yourself from any downside of stress is to surround yourself with a strong and supportive social network. Study after study shows that friendship and social ties are a big buffer against life’s tensions. Your body actively encourages you to reach out to other people – one of the hormones you release under stress is oxytocin, as your body attempts to calm you. You then experience a physiological urge for more oxytocin – also known as the ‘tend and befriend’ hormone – which increases your motivation to spend more time with other people. Studies show that this both protects heart cells and also helps them heal from stress-induced damage. Giving social support back is just as powerful in terms of your health. When you show compassion to someone else, again you produce oxytocin, which helps to protect you from any negative impact of stress. In a study from the university of Buffalo, researchers discovered that for every major stressful life experience, the person’s risk of dying increased by 30 per cent. But, those who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no increased risk.