“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf them.”
Stress is an inevitable part of life. We can’t predict, control, or stop the waves of stress from entering our lives, any more than we can stop the waves of the ocean from coming ashore.
But we can learn how to surf those waves with more balance, agility, and ease – rather than being swamped by them and drowning in them.
One of the most powerful ways we can transform our relationship with stress – how we can remain afloat through even the most fearsome and rogue waves (such as, say, a worldwide pandemic) – is to change our stress mindset.
When we change our awareness and acceptance of stress in our lives, we are freer and stronger to choose how we respond to that stress, rather than just mindlessly react to it.
Did you know that your beliefs about stress go a long way towards how stress actually affects your physiologic response to stress? Dr. Kelly McGonigal in her seminal TED Talk and subsequent best-selling book The Upside of Stress, summarizes the scientific research on this quite vividly.
In one study, adult subjects were followed for 10 years, assessing the amount of stress in their lives (low to high). Those with higher amounts of stress had a 43% higher risk of dying in that time period.
But here’s the kicker. That was true only for the people who answered yes to this question: “Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?” Those who answered no, who didn’t believe stress was harmful to them, had the lowest mortality rates, even if they had high levels of stress in their lives!
Many of us share the general knowledge that stress is highly correlated with coronary heart disease. Why is this? Studies show that chronic stress produces a constriction of the main arteries in the heart, making you more vulnerable to heart attacks and strokes.
However, once again, a pioneering study showed that this is only true for those who believed that stress was harmful to them. Those who had healthier stress beliefs – what we call mindsets – did not show the same levels of constricted arteries. Proof again that your mind actually can and does affect your body.
Many of us know that high stress events trigger the human (mammal) stress reaction called “Fight or Flight.” What happens in this condition is that your nervous system kicks into high gear to help you survive an imminent threat, automatically releasing the stress hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones get your heart and lungs pumping faster, your muscles tighter and stronger, so you can fight or flee the danger.
But you may not know that other chemical reactions are happening automatically in the face of environmental stressors as well. Oxytocin – known affectionately (!) as the love or bonding hormone – is released into the blood stream as well.
Why? Because as social mammals, we have literally adapted to life challenges by coming together in times of duress. We are motivated to seek support from others and to offer help to others. This is how the species survives. This is how our society, our tribes, our families survive. It’s not just a nice idea. It’s a biological imperative.
In fact, oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory agent that targets, repairs, and regenerates heart cells in particular. Increases in oxytocin levels that emerge under stressful conditions can physically strengthen the heart, as well as psychologically leading us to more loving human connections.
Yes, there is some increase in self-preserving, even self-serving “fight or flight” behaviors under severe stress. Yet there is always a complimentary increase in compassionate and caring acts of selflessness in times of crisis. There is a real, nature-based, reason for hope in times of trouble. Literally, what doesn’t kill us, can and often does make us stronger.
Now, one final tasty tidbit to be aware of. Mindsets are not fixed traits. You can change your mindset. And you can reap the benefits of doing so. Additional studies have shown that just by knowing some of the beneficial effects of stress, you can improve your brain’s and body’s response to stress.
As we’ve said here many times, “What you focus on, grows.”
And “What you practice, grows stronger.”
The more you focus on the positive aspects of stress in your life – the more you see it as a challenge to rise up to or an opportunity to grow – the more you will build resilience and wellness in your life. No matter what the circumstances.
This isn’t a panacea or a magic wand. We’re not going to completely cure our ills – either physical or mental – with our stress mindsets. Remember, we can’t stop the waves. But our mindset goes a long way to keeping us afloat through turbulent times.
We’ll explore more about stress mindsets another day, but for now, let’s just consider this. What if Henry Ford was on to something when he said: “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
What are you believing about the stress in your life? How is that belief serving you and your children? How can you practice seeing the upside, the opportunities here for a more fulfilling, more precious life worth living?
May this awareness help you ride the waves with more ease.