Getting Better At Stress

Last week, my husband, who is a high school teacher at a private school here in Houston, commented on how exhausted the faculty seems, just a few weeks into the school year. The transition from a summer schedule back to a new fall routine is always a challenge, but he was noticing something different. Without much hesitation, I said, "Well yeah, we all had a rough summer emotionally with all of the gun violence, and so much is unknown about the upcoming election and how that will turn out. It really is exhausting."  We both paused, realizing how true my knee-jerk response was, and it was helpful to acknowledge that the exhaustion we're all feeling is probably very normal considering the circumstances. 

Stressing or Healing- We Can Choose
Our bodies are equipped with an innate stress response, but also with an innate healing response. The fight or flight system of the body is often the most discussed and researched aspect of our nervous system when it comes to understanding stress, but we also have the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, or the "calm and connected system" as noted by author Kerstin Moberg of The Oxytocin Factor, designed to do the majority of the restorative repair work in our bodies. Often we think of the fight or flight response as an "on and off switch," and it actually works best that way. We can also think of our nervous system as a spectrum, with the Fight or Flight (or Freeze in some cases) Response on one end, and the Calm and Connected Response on the other. In today's culture of constant access to information and stimulation, much of it quite threatening, many of us are probably living closer to the F/F/F end of the spectrum the majority of the time, often without even noticing.

What if we can make stress our friend? 
In an enlightening TED talk, Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal talks about the power of our beliefs about stress on our health. Basically, the more harmful we believe stress to be on our health, the more harmful it is. And likewise, if we believe that stress is NOT harming our health (despite all that we've been told), our bodies respond differently. A typical physiological response to stress is an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. When we change our beliefs about stress, it makes a big impact. Although our hearts may still pound, rather than constricting, our blood vessels remain open and relaxed allowing for better blood flow, which actually looks more like courage than stress in the body, McGonigal says. 

Oxytocin: It's not magic, it's biology
So there's also this amazing hormone that our bodies produce called oxytocin. This extraordinary biochemical acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and a hormone in the body. It is a major part of our body's natural 'healing nectar', as Moberg calls it- a biological cocktail that has the power to increase trust and empathy, foster creativity and curiosity, and even improve learning and problem-solving. There are even oxytocin receptors on the heart that allow oxytocin to counteract the harmful impact of stress by reducing inflammation and helping heart cells to regenerate. SO COOL. And what is the quickest way to increase oxytocin levels in the body? You guessed it- TOUCH. Within 20 seconds of gentle, comforting touch, oxytocin levels begin to rise. This can be a (really long) hug, holding hands, cuddling up, a massage, wearing or carrying a baby...you get the idea. Other ways to release oxytocin include loving eye contact, visualization, aromatherapy and talking to a friend on the phone (oxytocin levels don't respond as well to a text, unfortunately). 

So how do we get better at stress? 
If we're paying attention at all in our world, we're bound to feel anxious and stressed- and that is exhausting. So what gives? What can we do to strengthen our body's ability to handle stress? Here are a few things I'm learning:

  1.  Awareness/Know Your Triggers- Change always begins with awareness and often discomfort. If we're uncomfortable (pain or tension in the body, depression, anxiety, feeling stuck, etc) we're more likely to make a change in something that we're doing. Maybe we make sleep a priority, or eat a cleaner diet, or drink more water. And as we become more aware of our triggers for stress and anxiety, we are better able to anticipate stressful experiences and respond differently. 
  2. Gratitude- Yeah, yeah. Everyone's talking about gratitude. But that's because it's so simple and so profound. When we are noticing and appreciating, our bodies produce more dopamine and serotonin, which are also part of that healing nectar that repairs and restores the body. And it's even in looking for gratitude that our bodies respond in this way- so even when it's hard, it's worth a try. Like most things, the more we practice, the easier it comes. 
  3. Change Your Beliefs About Stress- If you have been beating yourself up every time you get stressed because you believe it is harmful to your health- as my husband says- KNOCK IT OFF. Instead, when you notice that stress creeping in, pause and consider what the source of the stress is, then try reframing it. For example, I always get a little anxious before speaking in front of a group. Lately I've tried reframing that to remind my body that I actually like speaking in front of groups, and I'm grateful to get to do work that I love. I invite my body to relax a bit and it usually works. And rather than getting angry at myself for being stressed, I actively thank my body for responding to a perceived stressor and simply ask it to alter that response a bit.  
  4. Connect with others during stressful times- Kelly McGonigal says that our bodies have a built-in mechanism for Stress Resilience, and that is human connection. When we reach out for help in the midst of stress, we actually create a different physiological response in our body. Oxytocin release counteracts the harmful impact of cortisol, so when we make choices that will increase our oxytocin levels, we are giving our bodies a boost that strengthens our ability to handle stress. 
  5. Strengthen your Calm and Connected System- Find something to do daily, weekly, and monthly that will ensure you're strengthening your parasympathetic nervous system. Restorative exercise (yoga, tai chi, walking, swimming), breathing exercises, meditation, massage- all of these strengthen your body's ability to handle stress in the short and the long term.