Stress responses.
It’s Not Stress That Kills You: It’s How You Handle It
SEPTEMBER 20, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Most wellness specialists agree that stress is on a par with smoking as far as health is concerned. You may even occasionally see stories about stressed-out workaholics who suddenly leave it all behind. But most people don’t want to live on the streets or off the grid.

Until recently, researchers have viewed stress in much the same way as Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Dr. Sapolsky says all primates release hormones, such as adrenaline and glucocorticoids, when threatened by predators. The likelihood of being eaten by a crocodile raises the heart rate and prepares the body to fight or flee.

In the modern world, we’ve been conditioned to react to psychosocial “crocodiles.” We get stressed at the fear of being passed over for a promotion. Or at the prospect of meeting a lover’s parents at Thanksgiving. We try not to think too much about what chronic stress does to our minds and bodies.

Stress is not to be ignored or despised. In a recent Ted talk, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal said she is embarrassed to realize that she characterized stress as “the enemy” to students and clients for years.

Treating stress as an enemy, she says, creates fear. Fear makes the blood vessels around the heart contract, which is not good. Dr. McGonigal points out that envisioning stress as a kind of partner that helps us prepare to meet a challenge can change the body’s response so profoundly that the blood vessels remain open, just as they do when we experience joy or courage. She suggests we respond to stress by first noticing we’re in its grip and then by telling ourselves, “This energy can help me rise to the challenge,” instead of, “Stress is killing me!”

Dr. McGonigal says it isn’t actually stress that kills people, anyway. It’s how we handle it. One study demonstrated that encouraging a positive view toward stress reduced the production of cortisol in people placed in stressful situations.

Another study, out of the University of Buffalo, did not surprise researchers this year when they noticed a 30% increase in people’s risk of dying for every major stressful experience, such as financial difficulties and family crises. But those same researchers were shocked to discover that people who respond to such crises with the desire to care for others don’t just reduce their risk of dying. Instead, their risk drops to 0%. Caring, says Dr. McGonigal, creates resilience, the ability to meet with life’s crises with creativity, hope, and connection

Dr. McGonigal adds that the stress hormone oxytocin can have a valuable role in helping people use stress in a positive way. This neurohormone primes people to seek out and link up with one another, to feel and express compassion and a caring attitude. When oxytocin is released into the body, we are motivated to connect and become, as she says, “fully human.” Oxytocin encourages us to surround ourselves with other people who care about us, rather than run off into isolation, licking our wounds and building walls around our hearts and minds. And even though it’s a hormone released during stress, oxytocin has another benefit: it protects the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress.

When we choose to view stress as helpful, she adds, we create the biology of courage. With courage, we can trust ourselves to handle life’s challenges. Dr. McGonigal suggests we can all use a more positive approach to retrain our thought processes. We can crank up our curiosity and ask, “What can I learn from this? How can I make my life richer and fuller by embracing this moment instead of trying to kick it to the curb?”

Back to (stress-busting!) Basics.

be happy


Stress Busting Essentials:

Sleep soundly. You can cope better with stress when you’re rested.

Talk about what’s bothering you. Your family, friends, co-workers or a counselor can help just by listening. (Be mindful of how often you are talking about the problem – also – taking a break from talking about something can be just as stress-relieving sometimes!)

Relax at least once a day. Try to reserve at least 15-20 minutes to put your feet up, listen to music or daydream.

Exercise regularly. It helps release the physical tension caused by stress.

Snicker, giggle, laugh out loud. You’ll feel better and improve your perspective.

Set limits on extra demands. Learn to say “no” to the nonessential.

Keep Your Energy Up

Eat Right: Foods that contain magnesium, zinc, iron, B vitamins, and the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamins A and E boost energy. For quick lifts: Eat smaller meals, and snack on fast-fuel carbs such as raisins, low-fat granola or fig bars or a banana. Drink six to eight glasses of water daily to help fight thirst and dehydration, which can also make you feel tired.

Sleep Tight: Wake up and go to bed at the same times each day to help your biological clock run smoothly. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep daily. Resist caffeine and alcohol at least three hours before bedtime as they can disturb sleep patterns.

Stay Active: Exercise strengthens your heart, lungs and muscles to help you do more physically.  But it also increases the supply of oxygen to your brain, boosting alertness so you can perform mental tasks faster and better.

Have Fun! Numerous studies suggest friendships boost your health and happiness. People with close relationships live longer and handle personal setbacks better. You can also try a new hobby. Hobbies replace bad stress with good stress, the kind that makes you strive to succeed by learning a new skill or reaching a goal.

Healthy habits such as diet, exercise and good sleep keep your body functioning at optimal levels. The rest is usually a case of mind over matter.

Some medications can make you feel lethargic or unfocused. Discuss your medications with a health care provider or pharmacist to identify any that could be causing you problems. Don’t forget to mention any herbs, vitamins or other supplements you take. 

Make the most of your commute: Play soothing music. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly. Listen to an audio book you have been wanting to read, but have not had time for. Don’t take any calls. Please, don’t text!

Change your mindset: Stress is your body’s response to a situation. Good stress is the type that moves you to energize and excel. Bad stress is the type that keeps you from relaxing and sleeping, and it can eventually contribute to illness. You can’t eliminate stress; the trick is to put a positive spin on it. Write down the good things that happened today, avoid pessimistic people, look forward to a new challenge. Smile 🙂

Maximize time off: Weekends, nights, holidays and vacation are for you. Commit to relaxing, recharging and focusing on what really counts toward a long, healthy and happy life.

Get to the core of chronic fatigue: If you experience tiredness that doesn’t respond to lifestyle changes or that lasts for more than a couple of weeks, see your health care provider. Your exhaustion could be a sign of a medical condition that needs treatment.

All these tips are not a substitution for professional care or counseling.


No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.

And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted  beyond what you can bear. 

But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

~ 1 Corinthians 10:13 ~

Valerie Rumfelt

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