Stress: Toxic or Tonic?

16 Mar 2018 7:43 AM | Michael Kelberer (Administrator)

By Michael Kelberer

I’ve been reading Kelly McGonigal’s paradigm-shifting book “The Upside of Stress” with a great deal of personal interest. For the last two years, I’ve been dealing with one very stressful situation after another. The move from Minnesota to Bellingham, relationship changes, and therapy. And on top of all that, I’ve read all the dire warnings about the effects of long-term, chronic stress on health and longevity.

The classic double whammy. Stress, and stressing about stress. Very depressing.

Tonic

Not so fast, says McGonigal. Too much of the research on stress has been based on a huge false assumption – that there’s only one stress response, the infamous “fight or flight.”  Turns out the human physio-neuro-hormonal complex is, well, more complex than that. In fact, there are a variety of stress responses, and often they can be more helpful than not.

For example: There was a period in my life when I believed I thrived on stress: minor crises at work, tight deadlines, major exams – I always felt I was at my best in the clutch. With good reason, says McGonigal. One of the beneficial stress responses is the “Challenge Response.” It fires up the brain and body, provides a motivation boost from a nice cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine, and gets you in the flow.

Unbeknownst to me, the key was that I believed that I thrived on stress, and this mindset allowed me to take advantage of the benefits of the stress response. So, within limits, the key to stress management isn’t always about reducing stress. Quite the opposite – embracing stress with a positive mindset can let it work for you.

Be mindful

Do notice the “within limits” caveat though. When stress feels overwhelming and beyond your current capacity to meet it – seek relief.

In both cases, the best tool for navigating stress is mindfulness. Feel your way into the moment.

If you're not facing the psychological equivalent of a saber-toothed tiger, chances are that this stress energy can be harnessed to help you deal with the situation. Being mindful gives you the space to make that conscious choice.

McGonigal cites several studies where people who were coached in this technique performed much better in stressful situations (big tests, public speaking) than those who weren’t.

And happiness!

Furthermore, McGonical sites research studies showing a strong connection between generally higher stress levels in peoples’ lives and their happiness and sense of purpose. The connection seems to grow out of their ability to see the many day-to-day stressors in their lives (juggling schedules, social media, cooking, household chores) less as obstacles outside of their control and more as necessary ingredients for the lives they are building for themselves. On a deeper level, performing those tasks, while stressful on the micro level, on a higher level were expressions of their own values. Says McGonigal: “The takeaway should be to change your relationship to the everyday experiences you perceive as hassles.”  Mindfulness anyone?

Before I started reading The Upside of Stress, I had been struck by the fact that, despite my long list of stressors,

the last two years have also been among the happiest of my life. Now I know why.

Michael

Michael Kelberer
Assistant to the Director


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