Stress: Is it Your Friend or Foe?
There are different ways to view stress. When looking at it as something harmful to our bodies and health, we operate as if we must minimize the pressures we face in our daily lives. With this perspective, coping measures may include meditation, journaling, deep breathing, and other techniques for self-care that reduce stress.
However, not all stress is bad and it is our perception of it that plays a key role in whether it will have a detrimental effect on us or not. This post will provide you with some of the key take-aways from George Faller, LMFT’s “Befriending Stress” workshop at the 2017 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium.
As per Faller and Hans Selye (the father of stress), there are two types of stress: eustress (positive stress) and distress (negative stress). Faller explains how stress is crucial for our growth; without any stress, people don’t change and literally wither. Conversely, if people are at the other extreme and are under chronic stress, it is very harmful to their health and overall wellbeing.
The sweet spot of eustress stress is what is needed to enable you to achieve your goals. This amount helps you focus and do your best to succeed or surmount a challenge.
There are two primary ways of responding to stress:
- Fight or flight response – this is a helpful response when you are being attacked but not when you want to perform your best (you are more likely to choke under pressure).
- Challenge response – this is a physically different response than the fight or flight response when threatened by a situation. While as in the fight or flight response, your brain is giving you more blood flow, you are smarter because it is paying more attention to your environment and all your senses are open to all the information available.
To shift from a threat to a challenge response, Faller suggests we view our stress response as a resource. For example, when stressed, consider saying to yourself: “Ok, I’m feeling stressed out and that’s a good thing – this stress will help me do a better job.”
Research has shown that when people shift their perspective on stress in this positive way, it changes both their physical stress response and helps them perform better in many different situations such as taking an exam, giving a speech etc.
While we all need cortisol (the catabolic function stress hormone) and DHEA (the anabolic anti-stress hormone) in our system, we feel and operate at our best with a low level of cortisol and high level of DHEA. When you respond with a fight or flight response, you have high levels of cortisol and low levels of DHEA. This is because in the anticipation of physical harm and wanting to minimize blood loss, the body constricts blood vessels and mobilizes immune cells to foster fast healing. In light of the primary goal being self-protection, attention to negative signs increases and typical emotions felt are fear, anger, self-doubt and shame.
However, when taking the recommended challenge response approach, you experience low cortisol levels and high levels of DHEA. This is because the body is not anticipating any harm to achieve its desired goal and it may relax blood vessels. It increases blood flow and energy to meet the objective with feelings such as excitement, anxiety, enthusiasm and confidence. Attention to positive signs increase and fear is suppressed.
- To obtain the optimal ratio of cortisol to DHEA, choose the challenge response over the fight or flight response.
Why Your Stress Mindset Matters
According to a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years and was cited by Kelly McGonigal in her book “The Upside of Stress,” you have a 43% increased chance of dying if you thought you were stressed out. Conversely, if you thought stress was a normal part of life, you have less the normal rates of mortality.
Mini-Exercise (to complete with a partner)
For a simple illustration of how influential your mindset can be, Faller suggested taking turns with a partner in which one of you are thinking negatively for a couple of minutes as in how you might feel if you woke up tired were stressed and had too much to do. After doing this, hold out your arm and ask your partner to push down as you push back and notice how much effort this took.
Next, repeat this exercise, thinking about stress using the challenge response – i.e., acknowledging the stress and its power to help you perform your best. Then use that extra energy to hold out your arm and ask your partner to push down as you push back and notice how much effort this took.
Below are two possible ways to take the challenge approach or transform distress to eustress (positive stress).
- Name it – Reframe it – First, recognize and acknowledge your stress – notice the signs such as racing thoughts, worries and physical symptoms. Second, reframe your stress to include challenge and opportunity.
- Embrace it – Embrace the emotion(s) – Look at your emotions (such as anger, fear, sadness, shame and surprise) as a signal or compass telling you what’s important or what you need. Next, search for a good solution; embedded within any problem is the solution or response to the fear of the problem.
For example, when feeling sad or full of shame, notice this emotion and reach out to someone you trust for connection and comfort. Connection is the best antidote to sadness and shame.
Post Traumatic Growth Is An Example of a Challenge Response to Stress!
Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) as referring to the “positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning.” It is not about feeling or returning to the state of being prior to the period of trauma, but rather “it is about undergoing significant “life changing” psychological shifts in thinking and relating to the world, that contribute to a personal process of change, that is deeply meaningful.”
Studies show that more than 50 percent of people who experience traumatic episodes grow from those experiences. Only a minority experience PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) or end their life by suicide. The people who experience post traumatic growth often see new possibilities in their life, experience increased strength (tapping into something they didn’t know was there before), have more meaningful relationships, exhibit greater appreciation and gratitude for what they have and develop spiritually and/or find meaning in the something bad that happened.
In sum, choosing to befriend your stress may help you feel happier and healthier perform better and live longer. It may also aid you in having stronger relationships and be more attuned with your clients.
What are your thoughts about Faller’s approach to managing stress?
Faller, G. (2017, March 23). Befriending Stress. 2017 Networker Symposium Session# 7170-118.
Michaeli, D. (2017). Stress: Is it Your Friend or Foe?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2017, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/stress-is-it-your-friend-or-foe/0019335.html