There’s lots of buzz about the upside of stress. But are the benefits real?
Psychologist, Dr. Liz Hale, busts common myths about stress.
Have you noticed the mixed messages in the media about stress? A
national news magazine recently put an eye-catching title on their cover,
“Stress Can Be Good for You.” How is it after years of warnings about the
damage stress can do to your heart, your immune system and your psyche,
we are now hearing that stress can be good for you? Dr. Liz Hale, our own
Clinical Psychologist says, don’t believe everything you read.
Stress is indeed hard on everything just mentioned – it’s also likely hard on
the brain. New research in animals reveals stress can shrink brain tissue
and make our neurons less effective at communicating with each other.
Scientists are also investigating the genetic link with stress. How genes may
affect the way our brains process stress and depression and how stress
Q: What is the stress mechanism exactly…how does it all occur and what
exactly happens to our body and mind?
Here is a list for you to use: Might be impressive to have it scroll thru while
I mention only a few specifically…..?
· Increased heart rate
· Increased blood pressure
· Blood vessel constriction
· Heart rhythm disturbances
· Increased stomach acid
· Increased muscle tension
· Increased cholesterol
· Increased blood sugar
· Short shallow breathing
· Abnormality in immune function
· Fluid retention
· Anger, rage or hostility
· Decreased concentration
You see something, hear something, or experience something your brain
considers to be stressful; the stress reactors in the brain are activated,
causing an increase of several hormones in the blood. It’s the elevation of
these hormones that produce all the negative mental and physical health
effects we associate with stress. When hormones become elevated they
cause depression because they affect the integrity of certain brain cells.
They elevate blood pressure; they increase how rapidly cholesterol
accumulates in the blood vessels of the heart; and they change the way our
immune system works, increasing our susceptibility to infection. If
someone has diabetes the hormones will make management of diabetes
more difficult because the hormones convert fat to sugar and make the
regulation of glucose more difficult. Stress affects every organ in your
The third thing that stress hormones will do to the brain is damage cells in
an area of the brain involved with memory. Stress interferes with metal
flexibility. The hormones will not allow proper connections between the
brain cells. If you have a deadline and you have 4 weeks to do it, when will
you start? Most of us wait until right before the deadline. The reason is that
a slight elevation of the stress hormones does increase our ability to think.
But it is such a small window ~ once we’re above that elevation then we
can’t think clearly, we can’t focus and that’s why we never say to people,
“Stress is good for you.” We never say, “go out and get some stress, it will
When we learn to cope with stress, we use behaviors and techniques that
reduce the reactivity and assist our brains with the stress response. Stress
is not good. Stress is not going away. But when we can keep these
concentrations of these hormones lower we will have a better quality of
mental and physical health. The brain can regenerate new brain cells and
damaged cells can be repaired. If we can get the concentration of stress
hormones down, depression will go away. It may take a couple of weeks
but anti-depressants take about that long, as well.
Q: It seems sometimes we have this sick association with stress and
Stress can become addictive. We become competitive. It’s become a sign of
success; “I must be more successful than everyone around me because I
have the most stress!” Stress is OK for short period of times but we must
find ways and engage in behaviors that calm us to reduce the concentration
of hormone levels.
Challenges are opportunities. Stress can be a powerful catalyst for change.
A client once said their heart attack was the best thing that ever happened
to them “That’s what it took to get my attention to do the things that have
made my life so much more. It made my life so much more joyful and
meaningful ~ I may not have seen these benefits otherwise.”
Q: What can we do to survive the inevitable?
Three-Step Stress Reducer:
1) Increase the amount of oxygen in our blood.
Deep breathing is calming and relaxing. When the brain detects more
oxygen in our blood, it shuts off the increased concentration of the stress
2) Use humor to decrease harmful hormones.
Create an imaginary box in your mind…put things in this box that make
you laugh, such as a funny family story, something that reminds you that
life is too short to take this seriously, etc. Now and then, pull from your
imaginary box to slow you down and calm your mind.
3) Repeat a simple chant.
“All will be well. Things are good. I am loved.” Say the chant over and over
to yourself when things are good; when you are happy. That way you set up
a conditioned response just like Pavlov did with the dogs. Train your mind
to associate that chant with being calm. Now, when you experience an
acute stress all you have to do is think of the chant and your brain will shut
off the production of the stress hormones and allow you to relax.
Q: Not easy to remember to do this when you’re in the moment of being
stressed out? Because we can’t think clearly.
We need to teach these to our family, co-workers, friends …so that when
they see that we’re upset, they can remind us to take a deep breath, or
laugh or chant and we can do the same for them. Sticky notes can be
helpful reminders. When I have a big event or something that taxes me
more than usual, you’ll often find on my bathroom mirror, “Liz, just how
serious is this?”Become a healthy life-style role model.
If you practice some kind of stress management techniques, it will have the
effect of making your fuse longer. The threshold for what bothers you goes
up. Eventually, mild stressors will no longer activate the stress reactive
areas of the brain.
Mechanisms cause improvements much more quickly than we once
thought. They are dynamic. We can alter our genes and increase our fuse to
better tolerate stress.
Your brain can get measurably larger. We can increase an inner sense of
peace, joy and well-being. We do not get our well-being or happiness form
outside ourselves. We can enjoy the world and accomplish more IF we can
learn to manage the toxicity of stress.
Q: You say meditation is powerful enough to even assist with fertility?
Fertility: Studies show that meditation can increase fertility.
Conceiving requires a complex interaction of many different hormones in
your body; stress can throw-off appropriate levels. Fallopian tubes are
lined with smooth muscles similar to the arteries in your heart. They can
constrict or dilate; under stress they constrict. The egg may not be able to
get into the uterus because it can’t get through the constriction of fallopian
Q: How does diet play a role?
Diet: What we eat contributes to stress. Over ½ million people
were studied and it was determined that red meat and processed meat
were associated with cancer and heart disease mortality. Caffeine can also
make our fuse shorter. One of the easiest ways to reduce stress is to
reduce caffeine in the diet. Eating well, physical activity, socially interactive;
use more of these behaviors to increase the quality of mental and physical
Q: Even religion is good?
Religious or Spiritual Activity: Behaviors associated with
spirituality have an amazing effect on stress; prayer, worship, altruism,
compassion, relationships, forgiveness…these are antidotes to stress that
frees us from our suffering, anger and depression.
Q: What can we teach our kids?
Meditation at School: Certain educational systems, like in
Detroit, are implementing meditation as part of the school day. Brief
meditation, brief breathing exercises help children calm down and function
better at school; attendance is better and behavior is improved. Kids really
take to meditation; it can not only help them manage stress better, but it
helps them enjoy their life more and get better acquainted with how to
increase inner peace. Be a good role-model form managing stress well.
Your children will do what they see.