Making stress work for you
I worry about retirement, but maybe not for the same reason many others my age worry about it. It’s not the money. No, what I fear will be lacking in retirement is something I learned to love: Stress!
We all agree that when stress is chronic or repeated it can cause big problems. It can dampen the immune system, dry out the digestive tract, impair memory, fuel anxiety and accelerating aging.
But we’d also be dead without it, because stress is also a springboard to excitement and achievement. When managed properly, stress provides the essential stimulation that keeps us engaged with the world. Without it we’d never win the golf tournament, ski down a steep mountain or have the guts to ask for a raise.
“Our goal isn’t a life without stress,” Stanford University neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky says. “The idea is to have the right amount of stress.” Like a roller coaster ride that lasts just a few minutes. Sapolsky explains this as “voluntarily relinquishing a degree of control and predictability in a setting that is benevolent overall.”
You experience good stress when you accept that although you can’t feel a constant sense of control, it’s still worth the risk. No matter how your mind and body may respond in the moment, you know you’re still going to come out fine on the other side—and maybe even be better off for the experience.
Being on television taught me the difference between good stress and its disabling evil twin: Panic. If I was well-prepared, I interpreted the stress as excitement. I still knew that something could go wrong because an engineer might roll the wrong tape for example, but the reward was worth the risk, because when things went well the adrenaline could be intoxicating.
When the brain perceives a stimulus, the nervous system releases stress hormones, dilating bronchial tubes to make space for more oxygen and enabling more blood to push through the heart en route to the brain and muscles which must be ready to flee or fight. The key is to control it for good. If not, we become disabled and increasingly vulnerable.
I was terrified before my first public speech. It was the same sense of panic I experienced in school, when I was unprepared and a teacher called on me. Eventually, I developed techniques to change my thinking. I realized that the difference between panicking and being excited was controlling my thoughts. I convinced myself to change my pre-speech thoughts from, “Oh no, I may make a fool of myself,” to, “What a cool opportunity to share some insights and have people enjoy it.”
Sadly, many people experience chronic, disabling stress or “toxic stress,” according to neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen . “Things are coming at you left and right,” he says. “You can’t keep up with them. There is the danger of developing a sort of ‘learned helplessness’ “—that is, not even trying to cope anymore because you feel there is no point. “The more threatened you feel, the less capable you feel,” says McEwen, “and the worse your physiology is going to be as a result.”
So here’s the truth about stress: What matters most isn’t the event itself, but how you respond to it. And how you respond both emotionally and physiologically depends on how you perceive it.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare nailed it in Act 2, scene two. Hamlet wasn’t real happy with the rotten state of things in Denmark:
Denmark’s a prison.
Then is the world one.
A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.
We think not so, my lord.
Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.
Here are some ways out of the “prison” of stress:
- Reinterpret a negative experience:You absentmindedly leave your headphones in the car when you go to the gym. Look at getting them as a chance to warm up before you start working out.
- Give to someone else: Studies show thatdoing something nice for others can make you happier and calmer.
- Jot down attainable goals :Even something simple like successfully running errands. Aim to achieve one every day. Write it down or tell somebody. This is a way to track what’s going right.
- Meditate: Meditation can actually alter the brain, increasing emotional regulation and decreasing fear.
- Get enough sleep: Sleep deprivation causes stress hormones to soar and sparks other imbalances.
- Exercise regularly 2 ½ hours of moderate intensity exercise a week is linked with both reduced stress levels and increased growth of new brain cells.
If stress is negatively affecting you and you can’t successfully alter your thinking, call New Oakland Family Centers. Our many professionals are standing by to teach you how to make stress work for you, not work you over.