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Making Stress Your Friend

“Stress happens when your mind resists what is…. The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to life as it unfolds.” – Dan Millman

Twenty-first century life is, by any stretch of the imagination, stressful. We are plugged in, tuned on, accessible, online, and in a constant state of hypervigilance. If we choose to we can be instantly made aware of any catastrophe occurring anyplace on the planet anytime we want. We have our own personal stress, and we gladly take on the stressors of the rest of the world. Most of us believe news truckthat stress is dangerous and potentially deadly. Yet we can’t bear the thought of missing out on anything. We believe that stress can kill, but we gravitate to it anyway.

Approximately 10 years ago researchers set out to create a longitudinal study to examine whether or not stress was dangerous to us. Initially the answer appeared so obvious as to make the study meaningless, but the study was done anyway. The study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States over an eight year period.People were asked the question, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?” Over the next eight years they tracked how many of the 30,000 adults died. The findings were that of the people who experienced large amounts of stress, there was a 43% increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who believed that stress was harmful. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in this study, including people who had virtually no stress at all. Researchers concluded that those who die of stress related problems are susceptible because they believe that stress is bad for you. In other words, it is the belief that stress is bad that Heart_Attackmakes it deadly. It is estimated that over 20,000 Americans die each year of stress related illnesses. Research indicates that this number would be dramatically lower if Americans simply were less stressed about being stressed.

Kelly McGonigal, a PhD researcher from Stanford University, was intrigued by this study’s findings. She began to wonder whether or not changing the way you think about stress can make you healthier. She says that scientific research says it can. “When you can change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress,” she states. “Stress makes your heart pound, your breathing faster, you break out into a sweat. Normally, we interpret these changes as anxiety or signs that we are not coping very well with the pressure. But what if you viewed them as your body preparing itself for the challenge?,” she asked.

McGonigal cites a follow-up study conducted at Harvard University in which participants who were told that the physiological signs of stress prepared them to cope better became less anxious and more confident in stressful situations. They viewed their stress response as helpful. As a result heart and blood vessels responded to stress in the same manner that one would typically respond in times of intense joy. “Over the course of a lifetime responding to stress in this manner can make the difference between dying of a stress induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s,” she says. “And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.” We should not try to eliminate stress rather we should change the way we view it. “This is my body’s response helping me rise to the challenge,” is a far more productive way to cope.

Most people are aware of the role played by the hormone adrenaline in the human stress response. Another major hormonal factor is the role played by oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone normally associated with affection. It is nicknamed the “hug hormone” because it primes us for close hugrelationships and human contact. Ironically, oxytocin is also a stress hormone and is as much a part of the stress response is adrenaline. It pushes you to seek help from other caring people during times of stress. It prompts you to connect to others as a defense against stress and allows you to notice when others are stressed as well. It is a naturally occurring antidote to adrenaline. It is also a natural anti-inflammatory and helps improve heart functioning. McGonigal says, “I find this amazing that your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”

The conclusion to these studies is that while stress does increase the risk of premature death, there is a lot of hope. You can significantly lower your risk of stress related illness and death by maintaining caring human connections with significant others. Caring creates resilience. The combination of consciously choosing to think differently about stress, that is, changing what stress means to us is the critical element. Reframing the physiological response as preparation, and reaching out to others to give and receive comfort makes all the difference. McGonigal concludes that, “The compassionate heart that finds joy in meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy, and when you choose to view stress in this way, you ‘re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges, and your remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”

Next time you’re struggling with major life stressors think about what’s really going on. Find meaning and reconsider your body’s resiliency. Realize that your body is preparing you for this struggle, reach out to others for this strength and support, and accept your body’s wisdom.

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Surfing Life’s Waves

“You never really know what’s coming. A small wave, or maybe a big one. All you can really do is hope that when it comes, you can surf over it, instead of round in its monstrosity.”- Alysha Speer

surfIt seems that, at times, life’s difficulties and challenges come at us like waves. Emotional challenges, physical maladies, bad news,all seem to come at us when we least expected or when we are unprepared. We tend to “bask” in life’s good and “ride out” life’s bad. Learning to accept life’s painful realities is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks of the human condition. If one is depressed or pessimistic life can be wasted by waiting in anxious anticipation of these moments. When these challenging moments arise there is a tendency to deny and ignore the difficulty. Research shows that it is more healthy and beneficial to work on accepting these times and that ignoring only makes things worse.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that works to get individuals to accept the reality of such challenges. Previous versions of cognitive behavioral therapy worked to get people to suppress negative thoughts, and ignore initial internal interpretations of these difficult events. Studies done in the 1990s on thought suppression discovered that suppressing the bearthought, feeling, or sensation, including pain, ultimately increased it. In a series of experiments subjects were told not to think of “white bears.” Two groups of subjects were shown a documentary movie about polar bears. The bear was chosen because one of the researchers remembered reading that when Russian author Leo Tolstoy challenged his brother to not think of white bears, the brother became obsessed with them and couldn’t drive the thought of them from his mind. One group merely watch the movie with no directions given. The second group was told after the movie to stop thinking about white polar bears. In the research experiment those told not to think of white bears did poorly on sorting tasks which required concentration, while those told nothing did substantially better. Other similar studies showed the same results. It appears our subconscious mind is much like a four-year-old child. Have you ever told a four-year-old not to do something? If you have, then you know what happens next. The four-year-old has to try it for himself to see what will happen.

A technique of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy uses the metaphor of surfing to cope with difficult thoughts, emotions, anxiety, and physical pain. An immediate goal is to realize that thoughts are not real but are merely our subjective interpretation of outside events. Thoughts and feelings are not facts. The problem is exacerbated by attempts to control our thoughts. Attempts at control magnify the thoughts, rather than stop them. We become much like the subjects who can’t stop thinking about white bears. Attempts at trying to “feel better” are futile. Recognizing the thought through a cognitive interpretation such as “I am having the thought that I am anxious,” is much more realistic than “I AM anxious.” Such thinking recognizes that anxiety is not you, but is rather a feeling that you are giving your attention and focus to.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy makes use of the strategy of metaphors. Metaphors are powerful therapeutic tools that help put life’s challenges in perspective. The reality is we’ve all been cardsthrough very difficult times in the past and we always come out the other side. We may be different after the experience, but we do move on. One of the examples of a more powerful metaphor used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is the Deck of Cards metaphor. Think about the events as a hand you’ve been dealt, or the cards you’ve been given to play. Throwing the cards in and folding is not an option. You “play the hands that you’ve been dealt,” in a systematic thoughtful way and work to get the best outcome. Another metaphor is the Wading through the Swamp metaphor, where one imagines walking waist deep through a swamp while focusing on dry land on the other side. Focusing on this tends to get a person to see that there is hope, and allows a more realistic interpretation. These metaphors can be powerful if a person realizes why. The goal here is to separate your feelings from who you are, that is, you are not your feelings. It enables a person to take committed actions and cope better rather than be overcome and paralyzed by emotions.

A great strategy that I have used successfully with my therapy clients is to get them to create their “story.” For example, a client who has low self-esteem usually speaks of himself or herself to themselves in a derogatory manner. “I’m not good enough because… I didn’t get the job because… They won’t hire me because… I can’t because…” are all beginning lines in a very negative story that one tells themselves. Clients who recognize this for what it truly is-a story-realize that it is the story holding them back, not reality. The story is their subjective interpretation, told to the self over and over. Clients realize that it is the story that is the problem. Outside of the therapy room clients learn to recognize when the story starts over again. “Here comes the story again” is often a thought that leads the client to a more productive course of committed action. The more time and effort the client puts into their own personal story, the more effective and useful this strategy becomes.

These are merely brief examples of some of the strategies of Acceptance and Commitment therapy. There are many others that one can use to good effect to accept the hands that you’ve been given by life and play them anyway. Keep in mind that the goal of all of these strategies is not to stop or reduce the painful emotions, but is to increase functioning and continue to live your life in the most productive way possible. Reduction of the painful emotion may be a byproduct of this process.

cat“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.”- A.A. Big Book

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Now What Syndrome

Sometimes life throws events at us like waves on a beach. Some waves we chase, others appear out of nowhere. If you ever chased a goal and attained it you may have been blind sided by an emotional papletdown after attaining it. The pursuit of goals, on many levels, brings up contrasting emotions-can I do it,? What if I fail,? What will this cost me emotionally,? are some typical automatic thoughts. In many cases the exhilaration of success is followed by and emotional letdown, a hollow kind of “now what?” feeling that takes a while to get over. “I got what I worked for so why am I so blue? What’s wrong with me?”

The good news is that there is nothing wrong with you and this emotional roller coaster feeling is quite common. These emotions were studied quite extensively by Richard Solomon, a psychologist who studied Comparative Psychology through much of the 20th century. His major research was of a theory called Opponent-Process Theory. Solomon developed a motivational theory based on opponent emotional processes. Basically he states that every emotional process that has an opposing emotion, an “opponent process”. This opponent process sets in after the primary process is quieted. With repeated exposure, the primary process becomes weaker while the opponent process is strengthened. In more simple terms after being incredibly happy, particularly after attaining something you’ve looked forward to, there is likely to be an emotional let down until emotions return to baseline.

There are many examples, some pretty familiar, that illustrate this. A young couple decides to marry, and plans an extravagant wedding. The buildup to the wedding, and the consequent stress, is enormous. The couple marries, goes on an incredible honeymoon, and returns home. Shortly now whatthereafter one or both experiences an emotional letdown. If they don’t adjust accordingly the marriage may be in trouble. Another quite common example is of the celebrity athlete who falls upon tough times after their career ends. After years in the limelight they are ill equipped to handle the post career letdown. Drugs and alcohol become maladaptive ways to re-create some excitement. Maybe in your own life you can recognize similar examples. The excitement of a new job attained may be followed by the realization and emotional letdown that it is, in fact, just another job. Eventually we returned to some kind of emotional baseline in most of the circumstances, mentally adjusting and moving on. If you went away to college for example, you might’ve experienced a kind of “what have I gotten myself into” feeling. Some young students dropout or return home prematurely because of this. Others decide to ride it out, adjust, and stay put. Those who are aware of this letdown and are told to expect it are more likely to stay.

The opposing processes can also be of the opposite type where the exuberance of a goal being attained leads to a temporary blind eye to its drawbacks. How often have you or a friend “found somebody new,” you know, somebody who’s “perfect?” The initial excitement of a new relationship often blocks character flaws of a new partner. People are often so overwhelmed with hope that they don’t recognizeelvis what they’re getting into. Love is blind, and the question “what does she see in him?” may be better understood through opponent process theory. Abuse of drugs and alcohol also work in a similar way. At first they seem great, exciting, and fun. Reality sets in and it turns out to be quite the opposite. Drug addiction is colored by the opposing processes of physical and emotional pleasure with physical and emotional withdrawal. Continued use is an attempt to get back to a balanced baseline.

This “now what syndrome” is quite common and natural and should be expected in many cases. Solomon’s work shows that emotions can fluctuate markedly when we’ve worked for something and attain it. Being able to sit with the opposing feeling, and see if it passes, can prevent later regret. Many people tend to react to “gut feelings” that may be due to opponent process theory. Waiting out these conflicting emotions can make for better decisions and better life choices. Recognition that feelings are not facts, and can be fleeting helps make for more informed decisions and better long term outcomes.

When you experience “now what syndrome,” sit with the feelings for a while. Gut decisions can be wrong, and when they are they can lead to regret. Process the now what emotions thoughtfully and carefully. Expect and anticipate now what syndrome and you be a little bit more ahead in the game of life.

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