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: