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Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us

Stress is an inevitable part of daily life and sometimes it can feel as though you might crack under the pressure. While you may never be able to eliminate stress completely, you can learn to identify its source and manage it better. This month, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, explores the evolutionary roots of stress and how our stress instincts interact with modern challenges in her Stanford Continuing Studies course.

In the following Q&A, McGonigal discusses the science of stress and how it affects the mind-body relationship, and she offers tips on managing the body's flight or fight response.

How does stress affect the human body?

The physical stress response is more complex than most people realize. Sure, we recognize this when we're under pressure. The heart speeds up, our blood pressure spikes and maybe we feel our stomachs churn and our jaws clench. But these stress symptoms are just a small part of a complicated cascade of changes in your brain and body.

It begins when the brain detects - or even just imagines - any kind of threat. It could be to your survival, like realizing a car is about to crash into you. Or it could be a threat to your ego, like getting criticized by your boss. The brain then unleashes a stream of chemicals that shifts the mind and body into emergency mode.

The brain shuts down regions important for long-term planning and juices up regions that help you react quickly and without much thinking. The body sends its resources to the systems that will help you flee from danger or fight to defend yourself (that's why the heart is pounding!). It takes those resources away from things like digestion, reproduction and healing. That’s a big part of why chronic stress is so harmful for health and can increase risk of heart disease, infections and digestive or metabolic disorders.

At the same time all this is happening, stress hormones released throughout the body are shaping our behavior. The hormone oxytocin is a key part of the stress response for women. It creates the desire to be close to others, to seek social support and hugs and protection. Among men, there may be an increase in vasopressin and testosterone. These two hormones increase the competitive drive and desire to defend yourself and those you care about. And among just about everyone, the stress hormone cortisol makes us crave whatever we are addicted to, from cigarettes to cookies to checking our phones or email.

Why are some people better at managing stress? Is this ability genetic or learned?

Genetics is part, but it’s very malleable. Some of us – I’m one of them! – are born with what’s called a sensitive temperament. This makes infants and young children more easily stressed out by things like new places, new people and being separated from caregivers. That temperament can turn in to an increased risk for anxiety, depression, addiction and other stress-related problems. But this inherited sensitivity doesn’t guarantee a lifetime of being overwhelmed by stress. Research suggests that sensitive kids who are well-nurtured by caregivers – at home or at school – go on to become incredibly resilient, even more so than less sensitive children.

We also know that life experiences can radically alter people’s stress resilience. Traumatic experiences, especially long-lasting ones, like growing up in an abusive home or serving in war, can change the way the brain and body respond to stress. Your brain and body can learn that the world is a dangerous place and become more reactive to any sign of threat. At the same time, there are many life experiences that make us more resilient to stress. Some examples are: Having at least one strong close relationship even if it’s with a pet, religious faith and participating in a religious community, finding a way to give back or serve at work or in your community, physical exercise, being in nature and meditation or yoga. There are so many things we can choose to prioritize in our lives that will help us handle both everyday stress and the big life challenges.

What methods are useful in evaluating if stress "good" or "bad"?

Rather than think in terms of good and bad, it’s more helpful to think about necessary and unnecessary. We can all agree that some stressful situations are bad, such as losing a job or the death of a loved one, but we can’t do anything to change them. They are a necessary form of stress because they are actually happening and all we can do is try to survive them.

But a lot of our daily experience of stress is self-generated. We imagine future disasters. We compare ourselves to others. We fume over people who don’t agree with us or do things our way. We let our egos get bent out of shape from the slightest insult or setback. In a sense, that’s the only really bad stress because it leads to so much unnecessary suffering. For most people, the best thing they can do to reduce their stress and improve their happiness is to start to question these kinds of stress-generating thoughts. You can’t always stop yourself from having them but you can stop wallowing in them.

Good stress is all around us. It’s every way we’re challenged, whether it’s being asked to consider a new point of view, learning how to use a new technology, trying to lift a heavier weight at the gym, or taking on a new role. Stress is how we learn and grow and find meaning in life.

We can never expect to be stress-free. The one thing all living things have in common is that they adapt to stress. Without stress, they fail to thrive. You can’t put a baby in a box and expect it to live. It needs more than food and water. It needs to be challenged, tested and introduced to new things. Those are all, technically speaking, forms of stress. In many ways, stress is what defines the human experience, and we kind of have to embrace it.

What are one or two tips, or resources, for managing stress more effectively?

In preparing my Stress 2.0 course for Stanford Continuing Studies, I looked for what effective stress reduction interventions have in common. To the best that I can tell, they seem to do most or all of the following:

  • Teach you how to identify stress-generating thoughts and either change them or at least not believe them.
  • Teach you simple skills, like deep breathing or meditation, to counteract the physical stress response when you’re feeling most overwhelmed.
  • Get you physically active whether through exercising at the gym, going for walks, or practicing yoga. This not only improves mood immediately, but changes how the brain and body respond to stress.
  • Give you specific information, skills and support for whatever is your biggest challenge right now.
  • Provide all of this in a supportive community, whether it’s group therapy, an online support group or a counselor. We all need to feel we are not alone in dealing with life’s challenges.

It's important to recognize each of these aspects, especially the life skills and social support. Deep breathing alone won't solve your problems. Similarly, telling someone who is overwhelmed to just relax will not ease their stress. People need real support, emotional and tangible, to manage stress. We need to give ourselves permission to seek it, and create the support systems that we will all need at some point in our lives.

Previously: How a scientific framework for exploring the power of optimism developed and The secret to living longer? It’s all in the ‘tude
Photo by topgold

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