*****Most of the information in this article is taken from the the book “The Upside of Stress” by Kelly McGonigal PhD - an incredible read that has much more info and insight than I could ever achieve in this space, so if you want to learn more about this kinda thing you absolutely need to read her book!*****
Stress stress stress.
Stressing about stress, and becoming more stressed.
Engulfing and never-ending.
No matter what holiday you take or recreational activities you partake in, it’s waiting for you right as you get back into normal life.
Can you relate?
Now imagine if all that crushing stress could be used as energy - harnessed to push you forward and overcome the things causing you this stress.
Sounds magical, right?
Well you can forget your chi detoxes and mystic stones - the only magical thing here is contained in that noggin of yours, so let’s use it.
All we need to do is change the way we think about stress.
I know that’s a bold claim, so let’s have a look at how that stacks up.
FROM THE TOP
Our brains are awash with chemicals and hormones at the best of times, and this is amped up in times of stress. Amidst the chaos, 2 hormones become prominent in our cranial cauldron: cortisol and DHEA (aka dehydroepiandrosterone, obviously).
They have slightly different functions: for example cortisol is used to turn sugars and fats into usable energy, it suppresses the immune system, wound healing, and bone formation, and other bodily functions that aren’t so important when faced with a stressful situation to free up energy and resources for fight or flight mode; while DHEA counteracts some of these functions, such as promoting wound healing and growth, to help the body grow in the face of stressful situations.
This isn’t the extent of their functions, and scientists will no doubt find more ways the body utilises them in the future, but the important take away is that cortisol preps the body for a stressful situation, and DHEA helps you grow from it.
Both are important in times of stress, and both are released in different volumes for different people.
More accurately, they are released in different volumes for different mindsets.
THOUGHTS BECOME THINGS
Now you might sit there and think “what a load of bullsh*t, how you think doesn’t affect your brain chemistry, I’m outta here” or “Hmm can my thoughts affect my brain? I’ll read on”. This is an example of 2 opposing mindsets, one is more negative and limiting, and the other is more positive and open.
While you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet (no matter how handsome the source), only one of these mindsets is going to give you the opportunity to potentially learn more or gain new perspective. Practicing one more than the other shapes how you view and experience the world, releases different hormones, and the more often you practice it the easier it becomes.
It’s the same when facing stress. We could face it with a limiting/“stress is harmful” mindset (oh no, I can’t do this, this stress is too much, etc) or an open/”stress is enhancing” mindset (oh what’s this, how can I beat this, this will be a challenge, but there must be a way forward, etc).
Psychologist Alia Crum and her crew were interested in finding out if there was any link between these stress mindsets and the two main stress hormones (cortisol and DHEA). To do so, they put together a few statements and found which side people related with most often when faced with stress.
From here, they were split into 2 groups: “Stress is Harmful” and “Stress is Enhancing”
Granted, we aren’t always 100% one group or the other - I know I’ve had days when the stress got the best of me, and there’s days where I get the best of it, what they’re looking for here is which side people identified *most often*.
What they found is that the “Stress is Harmful” group had proportionately more cortisol than DHEA in their system during stressful experiences, and the “Stress is Enhancing” group had more DHEA than cortisol.
FUN FACT: The ratio of cortisol to DHEA is known as the growth index to a stress response, those with lower DHEA than cortisol have a lower growth index, and those with higher DHEA than cortisol have a higher growth index.
“So they have different hormone levels and see stress differently, big deal.” I hear some cynical readers say. Well, Crum ain’t done yet.
From here, they had a look at their behaviours, and found some common trends between the members of each group.
Now, does the growth index cause the stress response behaviour, or does the stress response behaviour cause the growth index? The jury is out on this one, chicken and the egg/nature vs nurture situation we have ourselves here.
Personally, I think it’s different for each individual - one leads to the other, and they can end up in a cycle of continued avoidance and lowering growth index, or confronting stress and increasing growth index. This doesn’t mean we are strictly defined by it, no one is purely avoid or confront when it comes to stress, so there’s no point trying to label each other absolutely. As with any behaviour we have the power to choose and act in whatever way we want - someone with a lower growth index can make enhancing actions, and someone with a higher growth index can have avoidance behaviour. What is important is that we recognise it, and don’t let it control us.
We could spend all day discussing it, and get nowhere. *YAWN* instead, let’s skip it, and move on to how we can change it. Start where we are and move forward.
OK, I get what you’re saying, a lower growth index is associated with bad stuff, and that’s cool that people with higher growth indexes are better at dealing with stress - good for them - but surely that’s the luck of the genetic draw, how can you change your hormone response to a situation? How do you overcome years of natural behaviour? How can you get these so-called “Stress Enhancing” powers you talked about at the beginning?”
I’m glad you asked.
In short, by changing your conscious response to stress.
In long, read on...
Crum didn’t stop at just looking at people’s behaviours and hormone levels, she also looked into how different interventions and actions changed them. Surprisingly, it didn’t take a whole lot to manipulate either of them.
You just need to know where to start, and how to tweak it.
Working backwards from behaviour, we can see our mindset is the starting point for how we act and deal with stressors. So all we need to do is change how we think when we’re stressed - go from panicked and negative, to objective and positive.
Simple, in theory. If we’re working against years of the “stress is harmful” mindset it might be a little easier said than done.
Crum has got you covered, and using these 3 steps we can start to change our natural reaction to stressors, and use them to our advantage:
Crum advises people to practice this once a day, but there’s no real upper or lower limit.
Using this 3 step process, they found people were able to deal with stress more positively and move to more “Stress is Enhancing” mindset and behaviours, overcoming and dealing with stressors and increasing their growth index.
In addition, it can also help to look back at the statements that were associated with the “Stress is Enhancing” mindset and remind yourself of them from time to time - it can seem like a silly exercise, to tell yourself how to feel about stress, but if it works then it’s not so silly.
One of the interesting parts of the process is linking the stress with it’s positive motivations. I think this is the most important part as it helps you ground the stressor in reality - it’s no longer the enemy, it’s something that’s telling you you care and it’s coming from a positive place. It helps bring you from a negative “defeated” mindset to a positive “I can so this” mindset.
I feel like this article could have gone a bit New Age-y, the whole “unlock the power of your mind” kinda shtick, but I’ve tried the exercise a few times in moments of stress and I’ll admit it does feel pretty empowering. I wouldn’t say that it completely changes how stress feels - the same pressure exists and the voice of doubt is still there in the background - but it does help you to focus and be more objective when it counts. This in turn can help you take the steps you need to take to deal with the stressor and get things sorted out, instead of avoiding it and letting it get worse, so I still absolutely recommend these techniques - just know they’re not a super cure-all.
I’ll finish by being cheesy, because Halloween is coming and things are getting too spooky as it is.
This research and these techniques aren’t fancy gadgets or new services that will handle the stress for you. They’re literally just a change in perspective, a new way of thinking about something. The magic part was always there within you, you maybe just didn’t know how to use it or didn’t believe in yourself.
It’s not easy, and it might take some practice, but as long as you have faith in yourself you’ll make it through just fine.
You’re stronger than you know.
Boudarene M, Legros JJ, Timsit-Berthier. 2001. Study if the stress response: role of anxiety, cortisol, and DHEAs. L’Encephale. 28(2). Pp139-146.
Crum AJ, Akinola M, Martin A, Fath S. 2015. The benefits of a stress-is-enhancing mindset in both challenging and threatening contexts. Available online: https://mbl.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/crum_et_al_stress_mindset_in_challenge_and_threat_12.6.15_ur.pdf [Date Accessed: 8.10.17].
Crum AJ, Salovey P, Anchor S. 2013. Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 104(4). pp716-733.
McGonigal K. 2015. The Upside of Stress. London: Vermillion.