On Positive Stress

In order to determine if and how stress can be of support to our endeavours, we need to understand what it is, what causes it and what can make it positive.      

1. What is stress?

Stress is a non-specific physiological response of the body linked with perceived threats.
It is an emotional reactivity that happens first in the brain’s limbic system.

When we feel in danger, the amygdala, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This areas of the brain,  communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system activating the sympathetic nervous system providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. 
Dramatic and swift physiological changes are then bought about by hormones likeadrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline.

What are these physiological changes aimed at?

Stress responses have put our ancestors at an advantage by making them ready to fight, flight or freeze in order to survive attacks by beasts and other threats.
The physiological changes that the body goes through are all designed to enable us to react quickly rather than discriminately and to enhance physical strength rather than mental acumen. After all, nothing good has ever come from trying to reason with a saber-toothed tiger. For example, the heart rate is accelerated while vessels are constricted and blood flow is diverted to our muscles.
At the same time, all non essential bodily functions are shut down, in particular the digestive and reproductive systems; again, attempts to eat a lion or mate with a rhinoceros are unlikely to promote survival.
All of these conditions are intended as a short term booster to be used sparingly. The work our body has to do to bring back its physiology to homeostasis is taxing.

Why is our stress response activated more and more frequently these days when physical threats are less and less frequent?

To answer this question we need to look at the nature of the different stressors (events causing stress) we are exposed to and why they get to push our danger button.
Here are some examples.
Over the ages, our brains have learned to interpret as threats not only dangerous events but also behaviours that weaken our chance of survival.
Like many of our fellow mammals we have relied on being part of a herd as a way to survive. That is why the fear of being rejected is such a powerful stressor and why we seem to seek recognition and approval in so many ways. This makes seemingly inconsequential social interactions (digital or analog) feel like a matter of survival turning them into powerful stressors.

Not only that but the same stress response that is triggered by present dangers can be “turned on” by memories of past stressors and imagined future ones. That is because the limbic system does not know how to discriminate between inputs from our senses and inputs from our well developed neocortext.

2. When is stress positive?

Generally, for a behaviour or reaction, to be considered positive, it would have to be:

1. Adaptive: it puts us in a position to better deal with what is going on.

2. Appropriate: it is in harmony with what is actually happening and is proportionate to the gravity of the situation.

3. Controllable: we can willingly bring it about or at least regulate it up or down when it is too weak or too strong.

4. Sustainable: It’s unwanted collateral consequences do not outweigh its advantages.

Stress is a legacy feature of our body, that does not come ‘out of the box’ with all of these qualities built in. While it can stillsave us form a bus determined to crush us as we innocently check our Facebook timeline while crossing the street, it does very little to help us when confronted by an opposed view during a meeting. In fact stress can rob us of our otherwise unmatched dialectical skills due to the diversion of blood and its precious oxygen cargo to our quadriceps. That, on the other hand, would make it much more easily focus to jump over the board room table and attack our colleague.
From the limbic system’s point of view, being unfriended is a catastrophic event that requires the same mobilisation of resources as if we were attached by a pack of wolves.
When was the last time we decided we need to be stressed and our body followed suit? And for that matter when were we last able to switch our stress response off when we realised it was not helping?

3. Upgrade your stress responses

Stress is cumulative: exposure to many smaller stressors accumulate and can lead to unsustainable levels of neurological excitement and hormonal imbalance with potential negative effects on of our physiology. To counterbalance this built-in weakness, rather than looking for one miraculous panacea, we need to undertake a number of small steps that together bring our cumulative stress to acceptable levels. 

Here is what we can do to upgrade stress to its 2.0 version making it more adaptive, appropriate, controllable and sustainable.

a. Reduce frequency of activation. 

While isolating ourselves from all potential stressors is unrealistic (and frankly sad, see: living in a bubble), we can train our brain through mindfulness practice to reduce its stress responses by improving self-regulation. This means training in and becoming better at:

  1. attention control (what we give our attention and for how long).
  2. emotion regulation (how and when we react to stimuli).
  3. self-awareness (more attention given to sensory inputs and less to mental chatter).

You can start with a simple Focused Attention practice where you quietly observe the physical sensations associated with breathing, get distracted (don't worry this happens by itself), notice that you got off and move your attention back to the breath.

b. Modulate amplitude of responses.

Learn how to talk to your limbic brain via the ‘bottom-up’ pathway: increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system counteracting the sympathetic nervous system fight-or-flight stress responses.

A simple way to activate your parasympathetic system is too take a deep inhale followed by a long inhale and repeat this for three times. You can do that anywhere at any time to calm your nervous system down when you feel is spinning out of control.

c. Make friends with your stress reaction.

If we focus too much on the negative impact of stress we turn in to a stressor, the cause of further stress reactions, creating a negative catch-22 quite difficult to escape from.

More helpful is to look at our stress reaction as a benevolent attempt to help us out in difficult situations. Stress is that well meaning albeit clumsy family friend that has helped our ancestors to survive, enabling them to pass on their genes to us. He just needs some help to keep doing its job to our advantage under today’s modified circumstances.

Kelly McGonigal suggests that changing the way we apprehend our stress response changes its physiological reaction. Specifically, while the heart rate stays high, by interpreting the feeling of stress as a supportive and effective reaction intended to help us succeeding, our blood vessels do not contract, thereby mimicking the physiology of courage and mitigating the negative effect on the cardiovascular system.
She also observes that since oxytocin (the hormone that encourages us to be social) is also in stressful situations, a more adaptive solution to stressful situations might be built in the reaction itself.
Next time you feel threatened instead of closing up and isolating yourself, try reaching out and sharing your worries with others, your body will thank you.