Stress is a universal experience. Each one of us has experienced or may presently be experiencing some sort of stress. Stress can be the result of anything from everyday stressors, such as working long hours, sitting in traffic, caring for young children or aging parents and paying bills to more dramatic, additional stressors, such as problems with relationships—with one’s boss, co-workers, spouse, in-laws, or children—illness in the family and serious financial concerns. We have all heard about the negative effects of chronic stress on the body; stress that is left unchecked can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiac disease and obesity, which are themselves causes of stress. Many of us feel stress due to stress!
If stress is so bad for us, can we simply avoid it? Can we become so resilient that stress does not have a negative effect on us? The answer to both questions is no!
Have you ever wondered why some people who have experienced a great deal of stress seem to suffer greatly both physically and mentally while others do not, and even seem to thrive?
I was recently asked to provide some stress-reducing techniques to second-year medical students. At the end of the second year of medical school, students are required to take a test called The Step One Exam. This exam is a standardized test that assesses the medical student’s ability to apply basic science fundamentals to the practice of medicine. The pressure to not only pass but get good scores is overwhelming! I realized that some of the standard techniques that I commonly use with clients may not be as effective with this group; I therefore started to research a different approach to stress, and I came across a study conducted by psychologist Salvatore Maddi, who identified what distinguishes people who succeed under stress from those who are overwhelmed by it. According to his study, those who tended to accept stress as inevitable were able to look for ways to engage, adapt and learn from it. His research revealed not only why stress can help us learn and grow, but also how we can experience these benefits.
I decided to share the data from his study with the students. Since I knew that I could not diminish their anxiety about the test, perhaps I could try to change the way they thought about the stress the exam was causing them. I presented the following information:
Thirty thousand people were asked how much stress they had over the past year and whether they believed that stress was bad for them. Those who experienced a significant amount of stress had a 43 percent increased risk of dying prematurely, but that was true only for those among them who maintained that stress is purely harmful. Remarkably, those who experienced considerable stress but did not believe that stress was all bad had fewer deaths among them even than those who did not report stress at all. Apparently, if we can change our mindset about stress, we can actually change our body’s response to it.
During a stressful situation the body responds by increasing the heart and respiratory rate. If we could come to believe the fact that the increase in heart rate helps energize the body and the increase in respiratory rate brings more oxygen to the brain, we could change the outcome of how we feel and how our body reacts to those situations. Typically, as the heart rate increases at a time of stress, the blood vessels constrict; this is one of the reason that chronic stress is associated with cardiovascular disease. In a study where participants were told that their stress could benefit them, the participants did not experience any constriction of blood vessels.
It is a “given” that stress is inevitable. But if you view your body’s stress response as a way of helping you rise to the challenge, your body will not experience these effects negatively.
During a stress response, the hormone oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone,” is a neurotransmitter that makes one more social. In times of stress, then, your biological response is to tell someone how you are feeling. Oxytocin may thus improve one’s motivation to reach out to others for help and support.
With the above in mind, I tried to encourage the medical students to work with their stress, not to fight it. We also did some breathing exercise and laughter yoga. I am not sure if I helped them decrease their stress, but perhaps they were able to look at it differently.
While we cannot rid our lives of stress, we can change the way we respond to stress. Stress can create resilience and socialization.
Since you will experience stress in your life, embrace it and make it your friend.
By Beth Taubes
Beth Taubes RN, OCN, CBCN, CHC,CYT, is the owner of Wellness Motivations LLC. She motivates clients of all backgrounds, ages and health conditions to engage in improved self-care through nutritional counseling, fitness training, yoga practice and stress-reduction techniques. Sign up for the count-up-to-Shavuos challenge. Gift certificates available. Beth can be reached at [email protected] or wellnessmotivationsbt.com.