your stress response is your superpower!

This is the third part of our exploration of the physiology of stress. You can read the first part (exploring the brain) here, and the second part (diving into the polyvagal response) here. Our final entry will explore physical ways to work with the stress response.

a small boy wearing a superhero costume raises his arm toward the sky, looking toward the sun. He is wearing a yellow shirt, red glasses, and a black cape.
happy kid play superhero , boy power concept

When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent. -Meng Tzu,China,3rd Cent. BCE 

As a whole, our culture tends to characterize stress as something that is inherently harmful and should be reduced, avoided, or managed in some way. We’re given messages that it is toxic; that it makes us sick, causes heart disease, depression, addiction, and ages us more quickly. 

A 1998 study asked thirty thousand adults in the United States how much stress they experienced in the last  year. They were also asked, ‘Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?’ Eight years later, the researchers used public records to determine how many of the participants had died. As you might expect, high levels of stress increased the risk of death by 41%. However— that risk only applied to people who also believed that stress was harming their health.  People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die! In fact, they had the lowest risk of anyone in the study, even those who reported experiencing very little stress. The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people; it was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. They estimated that during the eight years during which they conducted this study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely simply because they believed that stress was harming their health. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal (in her excellent book “The Upside of Stress”— I think everyone should read this book) says, according to statistics from the CDC, that would make “believing stress is bad for you” the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the US, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. 

So, your mindset matters– and, as Dr. Alia Crum and her colleagues demonstrated in a series of studies, it goes both ways. Here’s a little background: you’ve probably heard about cortisol, right? Released as a function of your sympathetic nervous system, it helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves your body’s ability to utilize that energy. It also suppresses some functions like digestion, reproduction, and health (which is why it gets all the bad press). Its partner is DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which is also released as part of the stress response. DHEA is a neurosteroid that helps your brain grow stronger from stressful events– it speeds up wound repair and enhances your immune system’s function. Higher levels of DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, and all the other things that make us think “stress is terrible for us.” We need both of these hormones, but the ratio of your cortisol to your DHEA is important– this is called your growth index. The growth index is associated with better focus, superior problem-solving skills, and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms after the event. It predicts resilience in extreme circumstances. If you’re going to have stress or a traumatic event, you want a high growth index.

Dr. Crum’s study was simple. She subjected participants to a stressful mock job interview and measured their growth index afterward. All of the subjects had heightened stress hormones. However, one group of participants had a higher growth index. The difference? Those participants were shown a three-minute video about the positive nature of stress. That’s right– just a three minute video was enough to change the biological reality of the stressful event for them. They did not suffer the negative effects of stress in the same way the others did.

This is pretty great news, isn’t it? If we can learn, and remember that our stress response is designed to help us to handle life’s challenges, then we may actually benefit from the adverse situation. We can call this a challenge response– and it is your superpower.

So, let’s do a little superhero training. Can you remember a time where you felt some acute stress? It could be an incident in traffic, or a problem at work, or even a scary moment in a movie.

  • Can you remember what your body felt like in that moment? What sensations did you notice?
  • Did your pulse or breath rate change?
  • Did you feel hot or sweaty?
  • Did you feel like you suddenly had more energy?
  • Did you feel motivated to protect, or defend?

How does it feel to rethink these symptoms of stress? Instead of seeing our stress symptoms as signs that we’re not handling it well, can you see them as signs that our body is trying to help you to cope?

Let’s do a quick recap. Remember the triune brain model? We’ve got three layers to our brain: reptilian, mammalian, and human. When we are presented with a stressful trigger, our “lid flips” and the higher brain is no longer available to help us. Instead, our bodies are being run by our autonomic nervous system as our polyvagal response takes over. Once we’ve reframed our relationship to stress to understand that it can actually be beneficial, our bodies can behave differently during stress, and we’ll be healthier and more resilient. In other words, we can use our big smart human brain (when it’s available to us) to affect our animal responses.

In the final post of our series, we’ll look at this from another angle. Instead of the brain helping the body (a top-down approach to managing stress), we’ll look at how we can use our amazing animal body to move through the physical effects of stress. I think you’re going to like it. In the meantime, let’s get that superhero mindset in place. Why not check out this great TED talk from Dr. Kelly McGonigal, or purchase her book here? I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Click here to read the final article in this series and learn three practical ways to help you move through the stress response.

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