How’s it going in that boiling lobster pot of stress?
The last year of living in a pandemic has stretched human coping skills so thin that experts fear many of us may soon snap, leaving people around the world coping with a mental health crisis of catastrophic proportions.
In the United States alone, a recent analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found reports of anxiety or depression climbed from 36% to 42% in the six months between August 2020 and February 2021.
Yet some people – in fact, many people – somehow manage to weather stress just fine. Do those folks experience less pressure? That’s certainly possible, since not everyone has worked in an essential job or lost a job during the pandemic, or worse, lost a family member to the virus.
But it’s also possible they have mastered the art of seeing stress as a normal, acceptable and even positive part of life.
With that view, experts say, comes resilience.
And just like rock, paper, scissors … resilience covers stress.
Viewing stress as harmful can kill
It was 1998, and a random sample of Americans were answering questions about stress for the National Health Interview Survey, an annual household report designed to monitor the health of the nation.
The 1998 survey did something later years didn’t do. It not only asked people how much stress they were under and how well they were coping, it also asked them if they thought that stress had impacted their health.
More than 55% of nearly 29,000 people said they had been under moderate-to-severe stress over the last 12 months. Nearly 34% said stress had affected their health to some degree that year, and about a fourth of those said stress had made their health much worse.
Eight years later, researchers compared those answers to national death data to see who had suffered the greatest impact from stress. As expected, reporting high levels of stress did increase the risk of dying.
But here’s where the study’s results got really interesting – that risk only applied to people who believed the stress they were experiencing was significantly harming their health. In fact, the risk of premature death rose by 43% for people who viewed stress negatively.
What happened to the equally pressured people who didn’t view stress as harmful?
They had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than people reporting very little stress, said psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who discussed the study in her book “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.”
“The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress that was killing people,” McGonigal wrote. “It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health.”
“Just because you’re experiencing stressful situations doesn’t mean that it’s damaging,” said Mark Seery, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Seery has spent years studying why some people are more resilient under stress than others.
Could it be a point of view?
“Evidence suggests the way in which people experience stress seems to have an impact on whether stress is really damaging or not,” Seery said, adding that it is influenced by how we “approach things psychologically.”
And that, he said, “opens the door to considering ways in which people can learn to approach stress in a more versus less healthy way.”
To understand how that can be the case, consider what what happens to the body under stress. Ancient parts of the brain kick in – flooding systems with chemicals designed to ready the body for fight or flight.
The heart races, breathing quickens and the brain goes into high alert. Senses heighten; colors and sounds become more clear and vivid. You get a burst of energy and sharper focus so you can cope with the threat and survive.
That “good” stress can give you an edge in fighting or fleeing an attacker, but also when playing a competitive sport, speaking in public, interviewing for a job or even adapting to a pandemic quarantine.
Then, once the immediate threat is handled, your levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects, as nature intended. It’s a win-win – or would be if we saw it that way.
But instead of welcoming a stress response, “normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping very well with the pressure,” said McGonigal in a 2013 TED talk.
What happens if we view our stress response as beneficial – the way the body primes us for optimal performance – much like a finely tuned professional race car waiting for the flag to drop?
“Thoughts are super powerful, and the key is you create your thoughts,” said Michelle Anne, a certified professional coach with training in neuroscience and leadership. “And when you learn to control your thoughts, you can rewire your response to stress or fear or anxiety. You’re 100% in control.”
McGonigal describes a study where college students were taught to rethink their attitudes toward stress as helpful: “The most fascinating finding to me was how their physical stress response changed.”
In a typical stress response, she said, the heart rate goes up, and “blood vessels constrict,” making it one of the reasons chronic stress is linked to cardiovascular disease – and bad for the body.
“But in the study when participants view their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed,” McGonigal said, adding that it was a “much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.”
Experiments on cardiovascular reactions to stress done in Seery’s lab found similar results.
“In both challenge and threat, the heart beats faster and the (heart) muscle contracts harder,” he said. “But under threat, the blood vessels are generally more likely to constrict and actually make it harder for the heart to pump blood.
“Under challenge, the pattern looks a lot like aerobic exercise, where really arteries in the body overall tend to dilate, and the heart actually pumps more blood,” he added.
“This one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s,” McGonigal said. “This is really what the new science of stress reveals – that how you think about stress matters.”
Your brain on ‘good’ stress
When stress is viewed through more rose-colored glasses, the brain reacts differently, changing the ratio of stress hormones the brain releases – and that, experts say, can make all the difference in whether stress turns toxic.
During a more positive reaction to stress, the body makes a smaller amount of the stress hormone cortisol, which can be harmful at chronic levels. At the same time, the brain ups production of another steroid, dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, which is often called the “anti-aging” hormone.
Having a naturally higher ratio of DHEA to cortisol appears to be protective against the negative effects of stress on the body.
Men in military survival school who performed at the top of their class with less distress had higher ratios of DHEA to cortisol in their blood. However, when men and women viewed their levels of stress at work to be intolerable, DHEA production dropped.
The body also makes another hormone during stress – oxytocin, the “cuddle” hormone that helps people fall in love and mothers care for their newborns.
When released in a more positive stress response, experts believe oxytocin may lead people to seek out more and better social contacts – another upside of stress.
“Scientists refer to this as the tend-and-befriend response,” McGonigal writes in her book, which “motivates you to protect the people and communities you care about. And, importantly, it gives you the courage to do so.”
It even generates new brain growth, according to Daniela Kaufer, acting associate dean and professor of integrative biology at UC Berkley. Kaufer runs her own lab dedicated to investigating how stress affects brain plasticity and deterioration.
Studies done by Kaufer in lab animals show moderate stress activated growth in stem cells in a part of the brain that regulates emotional learning and helps with depression.
“You had more of those cells, and they were activated more in the next stressor, which helped the animal cope better. So we’ve shown that some stress can be beneficial for you,” Kaufer said.
There’s yet another benefit of oxytocin released during a stress response, according to McGonigal.
“Your heart has special receptors for oxytocin, which helps heart cells regenerate and repair from any micro-damage. When your stress response includes oxytocin, stress can literally strengthen your heart,” she writes.
“This is quite different from the message we usually hear – that stress will give you a heart attack!”
Yes, chronic stress is bad
Of course, there’s no way to equate everyday, transient stress to the life-long impact of losing a loved one – which so many have done during the pandemic – or ongoing multiple stressors such as divorce, single parenting, job loss, financial insecurity and chronic disease.
In fact, it’s well established that chronic stress that lasts and lasts does enormous damage to the body, making many existing diseases and conditions worse.
“The more serious negative life adversities that people face, the more risks they face for negative psychological and physical consequences going forward in their lives,” Seery said.
But his research has also found that if people experience some life adversity, they “actually have less negative and more positive reactions” to stress.
“It’s not just a straight line where the more stuff that’s happened you the worse off you are,” Seery said. Instead, it’s more of “a happy medium” where people who have experienced some adversity in life tend to be better off across a variety of different psychological and physical measures.
“So one takeaway message from this is that even if seriously bad things have happened to someone, that’s not a death sentence, that doesn’t mean that they’re doomed to be forever damaged,” Seery said.
“This suggests that the process of going through difficulties, even though it’s bad in the moment, it can actually open the door for essentially a form of future growth, a propensity for future resilience, a toughness that makes people better able to cope with future stress,” he said.
“I really look at it as a message of hope, a sort of silver lining.”