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#019 - National Stress Awareness Week

We've reached the end of National Stress Awareness Week - if you were aware of the week, hopefully you were also aware of stress, too. That's kind of the point. If you weren't aware of the week, you might still have been pretty aware of stress regardless. Or perhaps you weren't, and live an idyllic, stress-free life (or simply have a lot going on beneath the surface that you aren't conscious of). Whatever the case, this article will hopefully be useful and interesting reading regardless; we all suffer from stress - some of us more than others - and it can be pretty bothersome. At worst, it can be incredibly debilitating and is believed to contribute to a wide range of physical and mental illnesses. At best, however, stress can be easily-managed and even act as an ally in navigating whatever situation has produced it in the first place!

In this article I'd like to adopt a slightly different perspective to the usual stress is bad and must be eliminated at all costs kind of mindset that frequently gets thrown around when it comes to this subject. I recently stumbled upon a very interesting and well-presented TED Talk (if you aren't aware of them, you must check them out) by a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University named Kelly McGonigal, entitled: "How to Make Stress Your Friend".

The idea of being friends with stress may sound absurd - even counterproductive - but McGonigal makes some increasingly interesting observations that utterly transformed the manner in which I personally view this ever-so-common aspect of human experience. Before I delve into what she said, however, I'd like to provide a little personal context on my own experience with stress over the past couple of years or so. As anyone who reads these posts regularly may be aware, I suffered an extended period of chronic anxiety in the not-too-distant past. Sometimes this manifested itself in small ways, such as a general sense of unease and a background feeling of nervousness. At other times it reared its ugly head in a much more extreme manner - panic attacks and overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and negativity. These more intense encounters with anxiety were usually linked by one thing - they would primarily occur at moments of high stress.

A distinction must be made between stress and anxiety - it's easy to equate the two, considering they share many of the same physical and mental symptoms. People who suffer from stress and/or anxiety frequently report feeling tired, worrying incessantly, finding it hard to sleep and experiencing increased levels of irritability and even full-blown anger. Then there are the physical effects, too: heightened heart rates, muscular tension and frequent headaches are all often noted as side-effects of stressed or anxious headspaces. There is one obvious and major distinction between the two states, however. Stress emerges in response to a stimulus - something that we, for whatever reason (logical or not), find threatening. This could be a looming exam, an argument with a loved one, a tiger loose at the zoo, the latest Brexit deadline - it doesn't matter, provided you perceive it as in some way being a danger to your wellbeing.

Once the danger is gone, stress tends to leave with it. Anxiety, on the other hand, lingers. There doesn't necessarily need to be a perceived threat for it to make itself at home, which is one of the reasons it can be so crippling to those who suffer from it. It's often not logical to feel anxiety, but it doesn't have to be. For this reason - and I'd defy anybody to argue otherwise - anxiety is something that should be worked upon; it rarely (if ever) practically serves us in any way, and I highly-doubt that anybody enjoys its presence. When experienced over extended periods of time, it can contribute to all manner of health problems - it would be profoundly difficult, if not impossible, to make anxiety your friend. Stress, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. Because it's a response to a stimulus, it has roots within reality and a practical purpose to serve in navigating that reality. Sure, it may not always be logical, but - certainly according to McGonigal - it can at least be harnessed and used as a helpful tool.

How? The answer may change your perspective on the subject entirely. In the first study that McGonigal references in her talk, she discusses how the University of Wisconsin did a study that tracked the lives of 30,000 subjects over a period of eight years. The study concluded that those participants who experienced very high levels of stress during this time had a 43% increase in their risk of dying. It's a shockingly-high figure, but what was perhaps even more surprising about these findings was that they only applied to those who believed stress was harmful to them. McGonigal observed that an estimated 20,000 Americans die every year due to a combination of high stress levels and negative beliefs about stress itself. If you want to contextualise that figure, it would be the 15th leading cause of death in the country (just below Parkinson's Disease, and above HIV and AIDs).

It's an intriguing statistic, and raises a number of questions about what exactly harms us when it comes to stress. McGonigal goes on to cite another study - this time from Harvard - in which the heart rates of participants were monitored as stress-inducing situations were manufactured. The majority of the subjects were shown to experience a restriction within the arteries connected to their hearts, but some of them did not. Who were they? Perhaps you guessed it already - the people who didn't suffer from this arterial restriction were all told that the stress was a positive, helpful reaction. In fact, McGonigal observes, the state experienced by those who perceived their stress in a positive light was remarkably similar to joy. What this seems to suggest is that the harmful long-term impacts of stress actually stem from our mindset rather than the stress response itself. For most of us, this fact likely casts the entire concept of stress in a completely new light. Rather than being a destructive experience that we should be doing everything to eradicate, stress becomes... something else entirely.

You've probably heard of oxytocin - it's a major buzzword these days, and has earned itself the moniker of "the love hormone" due to the fact that it's released when we hug someone. We view it as a positive substance, and it's rarely associated with the negative idea of stress. What you may not be aware of - I certainly wasn't until recently - is that it's actually a stress hormone. That's right; oxytocin isn't just produced when we hug people, our pituitary glands also secrete it when we undergo the stress response. We actually pump out about as much of it as we do adrenaline! McGonigal explains that the presence of oxytocin compels us to seek support from others - and suddenly it's emergence during high-stress moments begins to make a lot more sense.

"Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience," she states. "And that mechanism is human connection." Yep - oxytocin encourages us to bond with other people, thereby increasing our chances of successfully-overcoming whatever has our stress levels soaring in the first place. Because that's what stress is. A survival mechanism. It's not there to make life harder, it's there to make it easier. It heightens our awareness, which in turn makes us more likely to perform at our peak than we would be if we were relaxed. Hearing McGonigal speak, it becomes abundantly clear that stress isn't the enemy - our beliefs about it are. Rather than doing all we can to eliminate stress, we should instead be attempting to change how we perceive it.

I recall, back when I was in the midst of my period of serious anxiety, that whenever a stressful situation arose I'd find myself thinking "oh, crap - this is going to make me spiral." Even now, although it feels as if I've pretty much overcome my anxiety completely, when I catch myself getting stressed a part of myself instantly becomes paranoid that it will send me hurtling into a bout of anxious thinking. I can now see that it was this paranoia which truly encouraged this anxiety to consume my mind, not the stress itself - and since changing my perspective on stress I no longer find myself fearing it in the same way. Now, I simply perceive it as my body kicking itself into gear whenever it deems it necessary. If there's anything I'd like to advise at the end of National Stress Awareness Week, it's to become aware that stress can - and should - actually be your friend. That's what it's there for. Embrace it, rather than shun it. It's impossible to eliminate it entirely from your life, but you shouldn't want to!

I'd like to leave you by touching upon the third study that McGonigal references in her talk. This one was conducted at the University of Buffalo, and it examined a group of 1000 participants between the ages of 85 and 93. They were asked how much stress they'd experienced in the previous year, along with how much time they'd also committed to helping others. For five years after this initial examination, the study kept track of which participants died (morbid, I know, but they were all pretty old). The findings concluded that every major life stressor increased the participant's risk of death by up to 30%. However, those subjects who had spent a significant amount of time helping others experienced no increased risk of dying at all. The human connection experienced by these individuals also, it seems, granted them an increased resilience during difficult times.

So next time you find yourself stressed, don't stress about it! Greet it as you would a helpful friend, and allow it to spur you into seeking support from other friends too. Give a loved one a call, ask for advice - even offer a helping hand yourself! If you can transform the way in which you perceive stress, it will finally be fulfilling its intended purpose. A world in which everybody did this would undoubtedly be much more supportive that it is now - and, ironically, a far less stressful one to boot.

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