Stress has many permutations for everyone but in essence it is a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. In the main people have a tendency to think that stress is really bad for them and is often the root cause of illness. However if we could change how we think about stress could that reduce the effect on our bodies?
I recommend this talk on TED by Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Harvard University, where she states that studies demonstrate that when you change your mind about stress then you can change your body’s response to it. In this way your body will be energised and ready to meet the stressful challenge.
Stress is often associated with cardiovascular disease but if we changed the way our mind viewed this then rather than assuming that our blood vessels constrict, view the pounding heart as preparing for action and breathing faster as a means of getting more oxygen to the brain. If you do this then the cardiovascular response is similar to experiences of joy and your mind is controlling the stress and understands that it is a means of helping your body rise to the next challenge.
One of the most underrated aspects of stress is that is makes you social because the hormone oxytocin is released during stressful situations. It’s often referred to as the ‘cuddle hormone’ and it fine tunes the brain’s social instincts because it primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships, enhance empathy and makes us more willing to care about others.
The pituitary gland pumps out oxytocin as part of the stress response – we tend to tell some-one how we feel rather than bottle it up. The stress response in humans makes us want to be surrounded by people who care about us. This has a natural anti-inflammatory effect on the body and the heart has receptors for this hormone which strengthen it. So within us all we have a built-in response for stress resilience and that is human connection.
Caring creates resilience and how you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view the stress response as helpful to you, according to McGonigal, you create the biology of courage and if you choose to connect with others when under stress you create resilience. Stress gives access to our hearts and a compassionate heart finds joy and meaning in connecting with others. The message is if you think of stress as your friend, pumping extra oxygen to your heart you can then have the resilience to handle life’s challenges!