Making Friends with Stress

Author: Laura Vasquez, MSN, APRN, NP-C

Stress is an inescapable part of the human existence. No one can deny this fact. Even our distant ancestors experienced stressors, and although the types of stressors may have changed throughout the generations, the effects of stress on our minds and bodies remain similar.

The human body can handle short-term stress such as running from an animal or taking a diffi cult exam through adaptive mechanisms designed to combat these events. It’s the prolonged stress that our body wasn’t designed to tolerate. This type of prolonged stress can cause a lot of damage and can even be fatal. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the top six causes of death: cancer, lung ailments, accidents, suicide, heart disease, and cirrhosis of the liver. [1]

Recognizing that stress is a killer and dangerous to our health is an essential fir st step to preventing stress-induced illness and suffering. While most stressful situations are challenging, we can all agree that some events are weighted heavier than others. The University Hospital blog listed the top 5 most stressful life events: death of a loved one, divorce, moving, major illness or injury, and job loss. [4]

The U.S. National Library of Medicine defi nes stress as a “feeling of emotional or physical tension. A feeling, thought, or event which makes you feel the emotions of frustration, anger, or nervousness. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand.”[2] Some of the physical symptoms of stress include aches and pains, heart racing, chest pressure, elevated blood pressure, headache, shakiness, stomach ache, muscle tension, trouble sleeping, and sweating, to name a few. The emotional signs of stress may include feeling withdrawn, crying, yelling, and trouble concentrating, among others. Each person reacts differently physically and emotionally.

Perhaps your stress response is a partially learned behavior from parental reaction to stress, genetic infl uences that enhance or impair the body’s ability to process stress, or a loss of reserve physically and mentally to combat intense situations. Those are all valid reasons why one individual seems to handle stress better than the next person.

It would be reasonable to think most everyone is trapped in a never-ending cycle of uncontrollable events stimulating stress that negatively impacts our lives and even contributes to death. Could it be possible not to fear stress but to make friends with stress? Yes! We sure can’t avoid it, but we can acknowledge its role in our lives, and we can start to change how we view the day-to-day stressors, even life’s biggest challenges. Even if we lack control over some events, we have the power to control how we value those events and process our reactions. Research validates that it’s not the actual stressor but the individual’s perception of the stressor and their confi dence to handle it that determine the positive or negative effects of the stress.

This concept was put to the test during a study conducted by the National Health Interview Survey, which tracked 30,000 adults for eight years in the U.S. Models were defi ned to assess the impact on all-cause mortality from the perception that stress affects health. Some of the questionsin cluded: How much stress have you experienced in the last year? In the last 12 months, how much effect has stress had on your health? The results showed that 33% of participants reported higher levels of stress and perceived that this stress was associated with an increased likelihood of adverse health outcomes.

Another conclusion that emerged from this study, showed that people who experienced a lot of reported stress and believed it would harm them physically or mentally had a 43% chance of dying sooner than those participants who did not perceive high levels of stress nor associate the stress as harmful. When you change your mind about stress, you reduce the risk of dying and having adverse effects.

There is a fancy term for making friends with stress, and it is called the adaptive mindset. Individuals who have a stress-is-enhancing mindset exhibit more adaptive physiological responses and more approachoriented behavioral responses in the face of stress. Specifically, participants who rated themselves as having a stress-is-enhancing mindset experienced moderate cortisol reactivity and were more receptive to feedback than those with a stress-is-debilitating mindset when exposed to an acutely stressful situation.

Instead of viewing the stressor and emotions as harmful, visualize your body and mind rising to the challenge. View the event or situation as positive, and think about what you are going to learn and how you are going to grow from overcoming the experience. The body was designed to process stress.

We have hormones such as cortisol, catecholamines, and thyroid hormones designed to control our body’s reaction to stressors. These hormones can increase breathing, heart rate, and blood glucose levels, slowing digestion and sharpening our thinking skills. Understanding that thoughts and perceptions have a direct physiological impact can help and improve the body’s response to
stress and decrease negative health effects.

Adopting protective beliefs and a proactive mindset surrounding your old pal, stress, will prepare you for better health outcomes in the future. A great practice is reframing your perception of stress with the three R’s – Recognize, Reframe and Repeat.

Recognize that stress is part of the human existential experience and everyone experiences similar types of stressors in their lives. Therefore, try not to add more value to the stressor.

Reframe your body’s stress response as helpful, not harmful. Imagine that a challenging situation is not causing harm emotionally or physically. Visualize your energy reserves, enhancing your response to the situation.

Repeat positive affi rmations regarding stress. Such as, “This  challenge will help me grow and learn. I will be better able to handle similar situations or experiences in the future.”

Stress no longer has to be the enemy that we once perceived it to be. Stress in whatever form, such as driving in traffi c, the loss of a loved one, deadlines at work, or the ending of an important relationship, can be viewed from a more positive perspective.

Reframing our negative beliefs about stress can blunt or prevent the stress hormones from increasing, blood pressure from rising, the mind from racing, and blood sugar from spiking in the short term but can have far-reaching effects for the long term, such as prolonging your life.

REFERENCES:
1. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 31(5), 677–684. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0026743
2. Medline Plus. [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine. [Updated 2021 Nov 02]. Stress and Your Health. Available from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm
3. Parker, Clifton. Embracing stress is more important than reducing stress, Stanford psychologist says. 07 May 2017. https://news.stanford.edu/2015/05/07/stress-embrace-mcgonigal-050715/
4. University Hospital Blog. The Top 5 Most Stressful Life Events and How to Handle Them. 02 July 2015. Available from: https://www.uhhospitals.org/Healthy-at-UH/articles/2015/07/the-top-5-most-stressful-life-events