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Turn Stress Into An Ally
Is the stress in your life killing you?
Well . . . Maybe it is. And maybe it isn’t. It may all depend on how you look at it.
Over the last few years, we’ve been inundated with warnings that stress is doing harm to our health. And certainly studies have indicated stress can cripple your immune system, tax your heart and make your blood sugar spike.
Without a doubt, stress is a killer. Perhaps one of the biggest killers of our time.
But here’s the thing . . . emerging research is refining our understanding of stress. And with these new understandings we’re learning that stress is a lot more complicated than we first thought.
Because while stress can cause harm, it can also cause a lot of good. Even more interesting, our perception of stress may make the biggest difference in what stress does to us!
Getting Stressed About Stress
This shift in thinking has been highlighted by bestselling author and Stanford researcher, Kelly McGonigal, Ph. D.
For about a decade in her work as a health psychologist, Dr. McGonigal had been warning people about how bad stress was for them. But then a largescale study from the 1990’s stopped her cold.
In this study, 30,000 adults in the U.S. were asked, “How much stress have you experienced in the past year?” along with “Do you believe stress is harmful for your health?”
Eight years later, the researchers used public records to find out who died. The initial finding fit with our expectations of stress: The people who reported experiencing a lot of stress over the last year were 43% more likely to die. However, this was only true for the people who believed that stress was harmful for their health.
In fact, the people who experienced a lot of stress but who didn’t believe it caused harm to their health did not share this increased risk of death. Even more amazing, they had the lowest mortality rate of all! 1
How could this be?
As Dr. McGonigal and other researchers are discovering, people’s perception of stress may have everything to do with how much stress hurts them.
It's A Thin Line
Dr. McGonigal illustrates this with a simple test. She asks, where in your body do you feel fear?
You might answer in your stomach. Or perhaps you feel fear in the pounding of your heart.
Now where do you feel excitement in your body?
For most of us it’s in the same places!
As Dr. McGonigal has discovered, simply by shifting your perception of a stressful event into seeing it as a challenge and an opportunity to grow, you can change trauma into anticipation. And physically we end up changing as well . . .
In one study that illustrates this, two groups of people took a stressful math test. The first group was told before they took the test that stress could help them grow. The second group was told that stress was destructive.
While both groups experienced an increased heart rate when taking the test, the first group experienced something unique. Typically, when people are stressed, their blood vessels constrict making it harder on the fast-beating heart to pump blood around, putting more strain on the heart. This is part of how stress contributes to cardiovascular disease.
This didn’t happen with the group that saw the test as an exciting – if not fun – challenge. Their blood vessels stayed relaxed. 2
In another very interesting study, fellow Stanford researcher Alia Crum and her colleagues discovered that perception can change everything in whether you’re slogging through work – or getting a workout.
In this study, 84 chambermaids from 7 different hotels were recruited as participants. At the beginning of the study, half of the group were told the work they did cleaning rooms was great exercise and satisfied the Surgeon General’s recommendations.
And guess what happened? The women who saw their work as a workout – good exercise – saw the results too. After 4 weeks, the informed group showed a noticeable decrease in body weight, body fat, blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio, body mass index. Meanwhile the control group did not see the same physical changes even though they were doing the same work! 3
What was onerous work to one group was transformed into a great way to lose weight while getting your job done for another group. Simply because their perception had changed.
Attitude Is Everything
As these two studies indicate, it’s not just a matter of perception – your body is physically reflecting the change in attitude. Much of this may come down to what hormones are triggered by a shift of attitude.
When we’re stressed we produce two different stress hormones, cortisol and DHEA. While they both are produced from the same chemical, they have opposite effects on the body. Cortisol is catabolic, meaning that it triggers the breaking down of substances in the body. This can be helpful when it comes to breaking down sugar for fuel. But over time it can become damaging.
DHEA, on the other hand, is anabolic, meaning it stimulates your body to build. It helps the body build muscles, build brain cells, build neurons, build enzymes and more. 4
And the ratio of these two hormones seems to impact whether the stressful event is traumatizing and destructive or an experience of growth and empowerment.
When we have a higher ratio of cortisol to DHEA produced during stress, usually the outcome is worse. However, when we have a higher ratio of DHEA to cortisol, just the opposite is true. DHEA is a neurosteroid. It helps your brain get stronger after a stressful event. It helps your brain rewire, transforming the trying experience into wisdom gained. 5
Now some people tend to go this route instinctively. They relish challenges and thrive in a stressful environment. And according to the research, their hormones tend to flow in this helpful DHEA-weighted ratio as a result.
But even if you don’t instinctively seek out hurdles to conquer, you can still change your hormones by working deliberately on your attitude.
As the two studies above illustrate, simply shifting how you see a stressful situation can change physiologically how your body reacts to it.
And the first step to doing this is to simply understand why stress can be a positive agent in your life.
Why Stress Is Good
Biology and evolution are built on the principle of “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Stressors in our environment have fueled our evolution as a species. And as individuals, these stressors continue to help us grow and become stronger.
When we exercise, we stress our muscles, lungs and heart. As a result the body has to adapt and become stronger. As we grow, we learn language and skills – not easy to do – but in the end our brain cells change and grow new connections, our brain is rewired and we become wiser and more capable.
Stress is the trigger for change. Stress is a stimulus that demands a response in the organism to deal with it. When an organism is healthy, it can adapt and grow to deal with the stressor better. Consequently, future stressors won’t bother it as much. Our increased strength from one stressful experience gives us the capacity to take on new ones with even better results.
As a result, we grow and mature.
Now you can see stress in a new light – as an ally for growth and strength. Okay, here’s a few additional tactics that can help you put this theory into action and results . . .
Training Yourself For Stress
Just telling yourself that a stressful event can be a productive challenge can’t take away the challenge aspect of it. And if it’s too much for you, you will more likely fail and hurt yourself than succeed and grow.
Exercise is a great example of this. Just telling ourselves that we can take on the challenge of lifting a 50-pound weight when we usually only lift 30 pounds, won’t make that possible.
We need to train. It’s what Navy Seals do and what Olympic athletes do. People don’t perform amazing feats out of the blue. They put themselves in simulations and exercises that build up to the task they eventually hope to take on successfully. Researchers call this stress inoculation.
So part of preparing to deal with stressful events better is to practice and train. Using the 50-pound weight as a reference, don’t jump into something you’re not prepared to take on. But by the same token, don’t avoid all weights. Instead, seek challenges in your life that can help you build your strength capacity. Start lifting 35 pound weights, then 40 pound weights and work your way up to lifting 50.
If you always take the elevator, take the stairs. If you always avoid doing a presentation at work, try to speak up a little more in meetings; working up to taking on a full-scale presentation. If you’re scared of the kitchen, try cooking one meal a week and work your way up to doing more.
Notice where you shirk from challenges and start taking them on more. In particular, take on the smaller more doable ones that will build your capacity. But don’t steer away from the larger ones looming in the distance. Keep challenging yourself and working towards them.
Just like you need strength and confidence to take on challenges, you need skills. Without speaking the language, travel in a foreign country can be intimidating. But if you take the time to start teaching yourself the language you can make this challenge more doable.
If you need specific skills to take on something you’ve been avoiding, find a way to start gaining these skills and build your capacity.
While this may be hard – that’s the point. Each of these skill-building exercises are in themselves small buildups to increasing your stress capacity. Keep yourself on track by reminding yourself that this is something that will make your life better in the long run. Even better, write this down as part of a plan to make it concrete and help you reference your initial decision to take something on.
Put It In Perspective
Often enough, we turn molehills into mountains. And we can turn them back to molehills with a little mental discipline . . .
In one study on perception and stress, researchers found that when Ivy League college students wrote down what they were worried about and framed it as a more universal experience, it diminished the stress’ impact on them. Knowing you’re not alone in facing this shrinks the challenge down in perspective. 6
In the same light, compare it to more dramatic stressors you could be dealing with. What you’re facing may be hard, but (hopefully) at least you’re not lost in Death Valley without even a bottle of water. Of course some life challenges can be incredibly daunting and it’s hard to diminish them. But in many cases comparisons can help you cut your perception of the stressor down to size and shift it over to the inspiring challenge side of things.
Connecting with people in dealing with stress – by either seeking support or volunteering to help - has a wide range of applications.
First, simply by confiding in someone that you are preparing to take on a challenge, you can cement in your own brain that it’s a challenge, not a stress. Voicing things out loud shapes what they are in your mind.
Secondly, connecting has a powerful hormonal impact. Connecting with someone else as part of dealing with the stress can unleash the powerful hormone, oxytocin. Commonly known as the “cuddle hormone”, oxytocin is produced by nursing mothers, strengthening their bond with their children. It also is pumped out by our pituitary gland when we are stressed. Oxytocin fuels our instinct to reach out and join forces with other people. It also seems to quell fears neurologically.
Its effects go beyond the brain as well. Oxytocin is an anti-inflammatory. It seems to trigger our blood vessels to relax. Even our heart cells have receptors for this hormone. Amazingly, it seems to help stimulate our heart cells to heal from the damage caused from stress. 7
A dramatic example of oxytocin’s power is found in the history of wilderness skills school, Outward Bound. In 1941, a British shipping firm hired the school’s founder to help them solve the problem of losing younger sailors to the cold seas during shipwrecks. Invariably, in these survival scenarios, older sailors seemed to do better than the younger, healthier men.
Two factors seemed to shape this outcome . . . First, as discussed earlier, the older sailors had a different perception of the challenge at hand. They had survived similarly tough experiences before and were mentally prepared to take on the current situation using skills they had acquired over the years. But secondly, the older sailors usually had supervisory responsibilities. When their boat went down, they were more focused on taking care of everyone else than on their own fears and discomforts. This compassion unleashed reserves of strength and endurance that proved to be the key to their survival .8
Similarly, in a study conducted in Detroit, researchers asked people whether they had experienced a lot of stress in the previous year and whether they had provided tangible help to friends or family members. The people who experienced considerable stress had a 30% increased risk of dying within the timeframe of the study. However the people who reported experiencing significant stress but also helped someone else had zero increase risk of death within the timeframe. 9
Finally, there is one more thing you can do to make these stress events turned challenges become successes and points of growth . . .
Take A Break
As with exercise you need to rest and recover. Again, this is not to tell you to seek out comfort above all else. But seek balance. If you’re dealing with extensive stress, along with seeking social support and triggering your oxytocin release, support your body in taking this on with good nutrition and rest.
Make sure you eat well. Instinctively we tend to go for junk foods when we’re stressed. And while they may fuel us temporarily, they make us feel worse in the long run. Focus on getting plenty of protein, antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and plenty of water.
Supplement your diet with nutrients like chlorella and eleuthero. Chlorella supports digestion and supports the body’s natural detoxification process. Chlorella’s CGF supports cellular health, including muscle health. Chlorella’s B12 helps support brain health and energy levels. Eleuthero, as an adaptogen, may help moderate the body’s stress response.
And while you may not get the rest you’re used to when you’re under stress, rest when you can. Take a nap. Or simply relax your mind by taking a few moments to sit under a tree or watch the water in a nearby lake gently lap the shoreline. Even though it is limited in time, rest and relaxation are critical for helping your body and brain recoup and rebuild.
Take a moment when you finally conquer a tough situation to salute yourself. Acknowledge what you’ve done and how you’ve done it.
Make sure you squeeze all the learning you can out of this experience and use it to build your confidence and preparedness for the next time.
And even if you didn’t do as well as you planned in meeting the challenge – maybe you stumbled a bit in your presentation or you had to finish the 5K at a walk not a jog – don’t sweat it. But don’t file this experience away and forget about it either. Look at it and learn. When people reflect on times they fell short, it reduces their cortisol levels the next time they take it on and results in better success in future attempts. 10
All of this is still training and building your capacity. Consider this part of the ongoing story of your journey to become stronger, wiser and more successful in the long run.
Taking Care Of Each Other (With A Little Help From Chlorella):
Judy And Tom Desjarlais
For seven years Judy and Tom Desjarlais lived on the shores of Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada. They had to pump in their own water and all their electricity came from a generator. Life in the Canadian bush required they be self-sufficient. “But we enjoyed it,” reflects Judy.
Along with lakeside living, Judy worked first as a school teacher and then for the Department of Education in student support. Tom worked as a carpenter. However, health issues made it impossible for them to continue to live on the lake. In 2013 they moved in to Yellowknife to live on some property owned by their daughter. Fortunately their younger daughter bought the lakeside cabin so it could remain in the family as it has been for over 20 years.
Despite the health challenges that come with getting older, they feel great. And they attribute much of this to chlorella . . .
“We originally started taking chlorella for our digestion,” explains Judy. “Until we found chlorella, we had to drink prune juice three times a day in order to stay regular. It was terrible taking a bottle of prune juice with you every time you went on vacation. But since we started with chlorella that’s no longer been a problem.”
Even better is the energy and vitality they both feel.
Tom continues to work building houses with Habitat for Humanity. As Judy notes, “The other day a friend came over for dinner and was amazed at how good we look. People just can’t believe we were over 50 years old. I’m 67 and Tom’s 74! Yes we have a little arthritis and all that that comes with getting older. But we just think of ourselves as young and that’s how we feel.”
Judy explains, “We’ve learned that health really comes from the gut. That’s where it all starts. That’s part of why we’re feeling healthy for our age. Gut health. We try to stay active and eat well. There’s so much information about probiotics and how they keep you healthy. And to see how chlorella helps your gut flora. It’s simply amazing!”
This year, particular health challenges made them even happier with their use of chlorella. In January of 2018, Tom had a double bypass operation and in June Judy underwent back surgery.
Judy says they’re doing just fine, and their recovery has been well.
“When your body can get its balance it helps the healing. If we’re out of balance we can’t heal well. Our digestive system needs to be healthy to help us heal. If you’re filling our body with bad stuff then you’re going to feel that.”
“To put it plainly: What goes in actually comes out properly,” Judy finishes with a chuckle.
Judy first heard about chlorella from a flier that came in the mail close to 20 years ago. Impressed with the information, she decided to try it. It didn’t take long for her to feel the effects it had on her digestion. However, due to financial constraints, she stopped using it.
Years later, when her digestive discomfort continued to get worse, Judy prayed to God for some guidance in how to take care of herself and her husband. Judy says God spoke to her and pointed her back to chlorella. Without hesitation, Judy dug up her old file of information she had saved and called in her order.
“I’m so glad I did,” exclaims Judy. Since then, they haven’t stopped using chlorella. Judy points out that it does cost some money but it’s something they won’t give up again. “We’re seniors with a fixed income. But we will give up other things, we will stop going to restaurants, we will do what we need to because Sun Chlorella is a priority.”
Judy is particularly grateful for Sun Chlorella’s customer service representatives going above and beyond to help her deal with Canada’s Health and Welfare Department. Without their help, she says, they wouldn’t have been able to get their supplement order across the border.
When talking to other people about chlorella, Judy can’t say enough good things. But she always emphasizes that people must have patience.
“It doesn’t happen overnight – you need to give it time. When you’re going to start a supplement, your body has to adjust to it. It took a few months and then we were good.”
Judy and Tom Desjarlais take care of their health. In addition to taking chlorella they cook all their food from scratch using fresh, organic produce as much as possible. And they try to stay active.
But ultimately, as Judy emphasizes, the secret to their wellbeing and their marriage of 46 years boils down to one thing: “We take care of each other.”
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8 https://singjupost.com/make-stress-friend-kelly-mcgonigal-transcript/3/?print=pdf https://books.google.com/books?id=PvcqSQ1A6_IC&pg=PA24&lpg=PA24&dq=outward+bound+older+sailors+help+survival&source=bl&ots=i2liW_X6Fg&sig=vF_53Jj81SBifnjmuERODskAXLw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjCv5qw3e7bAhWqtlkKHQ_mBe4Q6AEIkQEwDg#v=onepage&q=outward%20bound%20older%20sailors%20help%20survival&f=false