For years, health care professionals (including many therapists) have advised their patients to live as stress-free as possible. They’ve cautioned: "Stress kills."
Recent findings, however, indicate stress is not the lethal culprit we once thought it to be. Science now confirms it is our negatively held beliefs about stress that damage our bodies and (over time) may spell our demise. In other words, it is not the actual events in our lives but how we perceive these occurrences that determines our emotional and, ultimately, our physical outcomes.
When we struggle with situations, our veins and vessels constrict – and this kinetic tension taxes our bodies, triggers inflammation, weakens arteries and veins, and leads to disease (dis-ease). It’s now clear that struggle, not stress, is the Grim Reaper’s best friend….
One popular form of Struggle is worry. This emotional state is especially damaging because worry is future-focused. Sure, we all need to plan ahead, but thoughts of "what if this happens" or "what if that happens" tend to trigger anxiety responses that are not based on anything that’s factually unfolding. There is nothing anyone can do about things that have yet to (and may never) happen. We are essentially emotionally shadowboxing here because these ruminations are creating fears that are, more often than not, false alarms (False Evidence Appearing Real). A lawyer friend of mine once stated that many of her clients wasted a lot of time worrying about things that, statistically, will never take place. Let me repeat: an attorney - a person whose financial stability involves mitigating risk – admitted this to me.
There is hope, however. By training ourselves to identify, and then reframe our thoughts during challenging situations, we can actually circumnavigate negative biological chain reactions. In fact, we can actually use stress to enhance our emotional health.
The key to the beneficial use of stress lies within our collective chemistries. Oxytocin, a naturally produced brain-based hormone, fuels our nurturing desire. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as "the hug drug" because babies (in constant need of care) bathe in the stuff: When a baby is hungry it cries - and then receives food from an alerted caregiver. Oxytocin released because the baby is stressed.
The current Pixar movie Inside Out is an insightful portrayal of how our brains effect on our emotions and actions. By the film’s finale, we learn that the main character’s sadness provides a vital trigger for her reaching out for a solution to her troubles. We can note her film journey in this way: Stressful events => sadness => Oxytocin release => desire to bond => seeking help and reassurance => a happy ending.
It has been hypothesized that oxytocin release during stressful situations serves to dampen physiological stress levels.1 Its presence has both direct and indirect inhibitory effects on the (central) amygdala.2 The amygdala is our biological "fight or flight" alarm clock – Oxytocin, therefore, allows us to hit snooze on our panic buttons when our misguided thoughts create worry and fear. Instead of running away from our troubles, we, instead, seek help in solving them. What’s more, this process is a win-win scenario for everyone involved, because helping others also releases feel-good oxytocin. This is the reason band together when crisis arises and why those who volunteer tend to become emotionally healthier.3
Stress doesn’t have to involve worry or trigger high blood pressure. It is not the stress but the way we perceive this emotion that creates the distinction between health and horror. Consider this: When we jog a mile, pick up a dumbbell or take a yoga class, we are actually stressing our bodies. Yet, these experiences yield a positive result: The physical stress builds our muscles and releases pent-up energy. If we approach these activities from a relaxed psychological perspective our hearts (which have oxytocin receptors) drink-in this healthy chemical – creating a sense of well-being.
Instead of "stressing out," decide to embrace your challenges with optimism and ease – and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You have the power to create the perspective that will produce oxytocin - and keep you healthy and happy for years to come.
1. Psychoneuroendocrinology Journal, September 2013, Volume 38, Issue 9, ,The role of oxytocin in social bonding, stress regulation and mental health: An update on the moderating effects of context and interindividual differences. Pages 1883–1894.
2. LeDoux, 1994, LeDoux, J.E. The amygdala: contributions to fear and stress. Semin. Neurosci. 1994; 6: 231–237
3. Emotional Mojo Newsletter, Health Benefits of Volunteering, March 2014.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Benson is a Board certified Behavioral Scientist and Licensed Psychotherapist. Bill pioneered The Mental Gym, a counseling practice that has trained thousands to build, and then maintain healthier perspectives and emotional muscle.
A go-to expert in the Psychology field, Bill has appeared on a variety of television programs, including Fox's Good Day LA, CBS' Woman to Woman, and NBC's Tonight Show.
Bill is a recurring panelist for Huffington Post Live and co-hosted 250 episodes of the cable talk show Doc Talk.
Bill is a published writer, covering creative solutions to life’s challenges. He and his work have been featured in newspapers and radio programs across America.
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