Be Aware! Stress Awareness – not just a caution sign!
Heather Quackenboss, Human Development and Relationships Educator
We have turned stress into our enemy. We have demonized stress. Most of us believe that stress is negative.
For years, we have talked about how stress makes us sick, and indeed, stress can certainly affect our health. And, if something makes us sick, we avoid it.
In times of acute stress, our stress reaction can save our life. Stress hormones increase our heart rate and blood pressure; our neural processing switches to self-preservation and we are ready to fight or flight. So, our reaction time is better, our focus is on how to stay safe. If we are driving and someone runs a stop sign that we are about to go through, we automatically break and/or swerve. If we are hiking and run across a rattle snake, we halt and figure out how to get around it.
But, when our sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive because we have daily stress at work or in our lives and our body cannot determine if the stress is an immediate lifesaving need and reacts, health issues like cardiovascular disease, ulcers, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, memory impairment, learning difficulty, and relationship troubles can occur.
A study at UW Madison tracked 29,000 people over eight years and started by asking them to rate their level of stress over the past year as well as how much they believed stress influenced their health. The study then looked at public death records. The findings were astonishing – people who reported that they had high levels of stress and who believed stress had a large impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those that experienced a lot of stress but did not perceive its effects as negative were amongst the least likely to die as compared to all other participants in the study.
Our perception of stress greatly affects our body’s reaction to stress.
In a typical stress response, our heart rate goes up, blood vessels constrict, and if we have chronic stress, we can be at risk of cardiovascular disease. When participants in the study viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed, their heart rate still increased, but at a much healthier cardiovascular profile.
Stress happens. And it is inevitable and okay. We do not want to demonize or eliminate stress, rather, we want a healthy relationship with stress.
There are two simpler ways to help us handle stress.
- Changing our perception of stress as something that is useful for us in one way to help our minds and bodies react in a healthier manner.
- Noticing our physical reaction to what is happening around us can help us understand our own reaction to stress (good or bad) and we can use that as a data point to keep ourselves in check.
- For instance, if our jaw tightens during tense moments, we can note to ourselves, “my jaw is a bit tight, I am a little anxious, I could take some deep breaths and know that I can get through this.”
- Believing that stress can help us helps us stay more relaxed when stressful moments happen. While our hearts may be pounding and our breathing is faster, knowing that stress helps us get through situations helps the rest of our system stay calmer.
- If we are about to make a speech and notice our body reacting, we can note that our pounding heart is preparing us to get up and be ready for action, our faster breathing is getting more oxygen to our brain which can help us focus on what we need to do. Viewing stress as helpful to our situation can help our performance, improve confidence, and reduce anxiety.
- Connect with other people
- Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone that is released during a stress response; it fine tunes our social instincts and primes us to strengthen close relationships and enhances our empathy. Oxytocin motivates our brain to seek support instead of bottling it up. It also helps us notice when other people in our lives are struggling so we can support each other. Our stress response WANTS us to be surrounded by people who care about us.
- Oxytocin is also a natural anti-inflammatory which help our blood vessels stay relaxed as well as helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage.
- Reaching out for support as well as helping others improves this compassion and builds our resilience for the stress that we do have in our lives.
So, how do we do this simply? We STOP.
S – We stop what we are doing
T – We take a deep breath
O – We observe (our reaction, what is really happening)
P – We be Present and in the moment.
For more information:
MaGee, R. (n.d.). Applying Mindfulness to Workplaces. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/video/item/applying_mindfulness_to_workplaces
McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. NY, NY: Avery.