Can Stress Be Your Friend?

All of us have a little voice that talks to us. You might think of it as your conscience or ego. It might be that "inner observer" who seems to stand outside you and watches what you do. This little voice has a dynamic impact on the choices we all make in life.

Buddha says, “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” The practice of self-observation creates clarity around what it is that you really do think. To change your attitude you must change the inner dialogue. To change the dialogue you must catch it in action. To do this you have to pay attention to yourself. You must engage in self-observation and listen for that inner voice. However unless you become very sophisticated at this practice there will always be a lens through which you see yourself. This is why it is supportive to pay attention to how others reveal another perspective. For myself I had never taken the time to really dissect the belief patterns I held around stress and adrenaline until a student came over after class and breathed into me some fresh insight.

He said he has been watching a talk by Kelly McGonigal (psychologist in the field of “science-help”), who believes that changing how you think about stress makes you happier. Here is the dialogue she used to support this claim.

Individuals who see stress as negative are more likely to suffer the damaging effects of prolonged stress. The increase in heart rate and breathing that comes with the release of adrenaline triggers our mind into telling us this is unhealthy thus placing more stress on the body and creating a negative feedback loop in the system. This attitude can lead to disease and reduce longevity. Yet those who are indifferent to stress or even perceive stress as healthy have little or no detriment to health. The adrenaline response is viewed as positive. The increase in heart rate is perhaps the body preparing them for action. The increase in breathing is supplying the brain with more oxygen so it can think clearly. This trust in the body’s wisdom gives permission for the body to channel the energy created by stress in a manner that creates courage and empowerment. McGonigal’s conclusion: how you think about stress matters. Yet she takes this conversation one step further.

Aside from how we think, the body releases a hormone by the pituitary when under stress called oxytocin. Oxytocin is mostly known as the “cuddle hormone.” It is released in the body during breast-feeding, it crystallizes emotional memories, improves social relations, triggers protective instincts and much more. However, one of the most amazing things that this hormone does is create resilience to stress.  

Her research shows that those individuals that seek social support or help others in need when they themselves are stressed become more resilient to stress. Here’s how it works. Oxytocin is a neurohormone. When you’re stressed it fine tunes your brain’s socials instincts and primes you to do things to strengthen close relationships. Ever notice that during times of grief your empathy increases? You have a desire to tell someone how you are feeling rather than bottling it up? Or perhaps you crave physical contact and are more willing to help and support the people you care about? Now for some the signal may be sent out but it is over-ridden by a behaviour patterns that tells you, “you can do this alone” and this is where the potential for stress to become damaging arises.  

Oxytocin affects your thinking but it also acts on your body. It protects your cardiovascular system during stress. It is a natural anti-inflammatory and it helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. Your heart has receptors for this hormone which when connected help the heart to regenerate. Your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience and that mechanism is human connection! I find this fascinating. Caring biomechanically creates resilience.

When you choose to see your stress response as healthy you create the biology of courage and empowerment. Connection with others during stress creates resilience and you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. Most importantly, you remember you don’t have to face them alone.

To view the whole talk by Kelly McGonigal visit: