The New Science of Stress

Do you ever have that dream where you’re back in school, you walk into class only to find out that it’s time for finals and you had no idea? You didn’t study, so you’re freaking out. On top of that you’re naked and you’re being chased by a killer.  Surprise!  You may be stressed out.  Dr. Oz says that school-type dreams are usually linked to work related stress.  Stresses about money can lead to dreams about losing your teeth and feeling out of control at home or work can cause dreams about losing something important like your wallet.  Most of my stress dreams are about being back at school during test time.  I guess that says something about me.

Stressed out girl sitting on bench

The effect of stress on our bodies is widely known.  The stress hormone called Cortisol (most commonly called the “belly fat” hormone in pop-ups and infomercials) can restrict blood vessels in the body causing increased risk of cardiovascular problems.  Stress can also lead to fatigue, weight gain, depression and can even trigger mental illness.

This sounds bad, right?  I’m not gonna lie.  It’s pretty bad.  Psychology today calls Cortisol “Public Enemy No. 1”.  If you don’t have your stress under control – things can go downhill pretty quickly.  The most common antidote for stress is to be less stressed.  Seems pretty easy, right?  Just take a walk, do some meditation and everything will be fine.  However, for those of us with stressful lives (i.e. everybody) sometimes these tips don’t work as well as we would like.  Stanford researcher Kelly McGonigal has developed some very interesting research about optimizing stress and using it to your advantage instead of letting it rule your life.

Dr. McGonigal has found that people who believe that stress is bad for them have a significantly worse stress response than people who believe that stress can help them.  She calls this the “stress mindset.”  The core of this philosophy is identifying your existing ideas about stress and learning to shift them to be more empowering.  One example she uses is the widely held belief that being stressed out means you’re failing.  Instead of thinking of yourself as a failure, shift your thinking to the belief that your stress means you care about what you’re doing.  This is a positive response to stress instead of a negative one.

The second pillar of turning your stress mindset around is the belief that stress is ultimately bad for you vs. the belief that you are appropriately equipped to handle stress in any situation.  One mindset gives leaves you vulnerable to your stress response and the other puts the power to control your stress response in your own hands.

The third key to empowering yourself to improve your stress mindset is understanding that stress is a universal condition.  Stress can feel very isolating and your brain can make it seem like you’re the only one who has ever dealt with this level of stress, ever.  The thing to keep in mind is that everyone gets stressed.  It’s part of being human and lots of other people can relate to what you’re feeling.

There is another hormone that get released during stressful situations called Oxytocin.  It’s most commonly known as the “bonding hormone.”  It’s what is released when a mom first sees her baby or when you get or give a big strong hug.  It’s linked to lower blood pressure and a stronger immune response.  The Oxytocin part of the stress response is what can help you connect your stress to being human.  This hormone naturally makes you want to reach out to other people. During a stressful situation, reaching out to someone and making a human connection causes your body to release more Oxytocin, which combats the negative side effects of Cortisol and can actually help you recover faster from stress.

If you’re feeling stressed today, switch your mindset and make your stress response work for you!  Take your negative feelings about stress and use them as fuel to go above and beyond what you thought you could do.  Finally, reach out to someone and tell them how you’re feeling.  It’s proven to help you and it might even help them as well.

 

If you have time, watch Kelly McGonigal’s very interesting TED talk on stress below:

 

Meditation: Not just for Hippies Anymore

meditate

What if I told you that you can get quicker reflexes, more creative thinking and less stress in 8 weeks?  You would be like, “Hey whoa, who dropped me off in the middle of this infomercial?”  And then we would laugh and eat cake with the Slap Chop guy.  Oh but wait, back to the less stress thing.  It’s true.  There really is a way to change your brain so that it deals with stress more effectively.  This top-secret brain changing method?  Meditation.  I know when I say meditation you’re thinking about someone in a robe who smells like patchouli but we’re talking 21st century meditation here, folks.

I always thought meditation was a total load and wrote it off as people sitting around doing nothing.  Then I started researching it for the blog.  According to The Buddhist Centre, meditation is “a means of transforming the mind. [Meditation] practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things.”

So, what’s in it for you?  Science has proven that meditating is associated with increased focus, lessened anxiety and expansion of the brain’s ability to learn.  If you do it every day, your brain will literally rewire itself and you will start to notice changes in your mood and outlook.

Now, doesn’t that sound nice?  There are many different kinds of meditation you can try.  The style that I find the easiest is guided meditation.  The Stop, Breathe, Think app I mentioned in my last post uses the guided meditation style.  The technique in the app is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction where you start by checking in with yourself and focusing your attention on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath.  The app then guides you through a meditation based on how you’re feeling at the time.  The good thing is, all you need is a phone and a chair or a cushion to get started.  You can download the app here.

Meditation is easilty applied to everyday life.  The goal is being more mindful in general.  When you interact with others, when you eat, when you drive (which is not easy considering all the other nutjobs on the road).  If you can take the kindness and compassion that you learn in your practice and use it to live your everyday life, you will reap the benefits infinitely.

Do you practice meditation?  How has it helped you?