You know the feeling: that hard deadline is breathing down the back of your neck, your notifications are blazing like a forest fire, your to-do list is expanding like a zombie plague and that vein on the side of your head is pulsing. You’re stressed out, dude. But here’s the thing: stress doesn’t have to be harmful. That’s the latest message coming from a new body of research which is changing the way we think about being stressed. In fact, once you realise that experiencing stress improves your relationship with it, you can use it to your advantage, and even improve your mental health.
1. Move Past The ‘Ticking Timebomb' Meta
There’s a reason stress has a bad rep as a kind of mental timebomb: chronic and traumatic stress can increase the risk of illness, depression and early mortality, among other things. So we’ve got used to the idea that stress is ‘harmful’ and is something that needs ‘release’ or ‘working through.’ But think for a second about how your body reacts when you’re stressed: your heart races, your stomach churns, your mouth is dry and skin sweaty. It’s not that different from how you feel when you’re excited. The secret is to reframe the way we view stress and put it into a context that works for us, rather than creates a negative spiral.
‘Any performance has an optimal level of arousal – it’s known as the adversity sweet spot’
2. Discover The Power Of Stress
‘These symptoms are the body’s sympathetic autonomic nervous system in fight or flight mode and are symptoms of arousal,’ Professor Ian Robertson, clinical psychologist, cognitive neuroscientist and author of The Stress Test, tells RISING. ‘Arousal is the common energy of emotions and is something that can be harnessed.’ Humans have been harnessing the energy of emotions since we lived in caves, when short, intense bursts of stress used to help us catch and kill our lunch every day.
There’s even a law: Yerkes-Dodson law says there’s a direct relationship between arousal, or stress, and performance. ‘Any performance has an optimal level of arousal,’ Robertson says. ‘It’s known as the adversity sweet spot. Above or below it, performance will be poor. Stress can get you to that sweet spot but can also push you over to the other side. What you need to do is engineer your own arousal – all the great sportsmen of the world know they have to get their brain to where it needs to be to perform.’
3. Re-Imagine Stress Symptoms As You ‘Powering Up’
Stress is starting to sound good, but how can we convert it? ‘The first step is that you have to believe that you have control,’ says Robertson. So, viewing the signs of stress as your body being energised and ready to meet a challenge is a start. See the pounding heart as preparing you for action, your increased breathing as oxygenating your brain, the mental buzz as giving you clarity.
‘The human brain is the most complex entity in the whole universe and it can create its own context,’ says Robertson. ‘We have the ability to change not only the functioning of our brains, but the very chemistry and structure of them by the way we use them.’
‘Experience of moderate stressors vaccinates you against subsequent stress’
4. Run Stress Encounters Right To Rewire Your Brain
During the fight or flight response our brains generate a chemical known as noradrenaline, and at its optimal level it causes your brain to perform, in Robertson’s words: ‘Like an orchestra, sweetly synchronised.’
Not only does noradrenaline increase performance during periods of arousal, it helps grow new cells and connections within the brain. Long term it may also protect your brain against Alzheimer’s because, according to Robertson, moderate levels of stress can help maintain brain function in people expected to decline.
And practice really does make perfect. The ability to learn from stress is built into the basic biology of the stress response and the brain rewires itself to remember and learn from the experience. It leaves an imprint on your brain that prepares you to handle similar stress the next time you encounter it.
‘People who had little stress when they were young have more trouble with it as they get older,’ says Robertson. ‘Experience of moderate stressors vaccinates you against subsequent stress. It can also affect your physical pain tolerance and, in rare cases, memory decline.’
5. Train Your Stress Response To Achieve Emotional Control
Rather than something to hide from or avoid, dealing with stress head on would appear to be the mental equivalent of pushing yourself down the gym. We don’t tend to get emotional about squats (well, most of us don’t) because we know that no matter how difficult they may be, they’re doing us some good.
‘Everyone can learn to control their emotions,’ says Robertson. ‘Not completely, not always, but everyone, absolutely everyone, can learn to do this better.’
With all this cheerleading for stress, it’s worth adding that not all stress is beneficial, so don’t use these tips to paper over dysfunctional working routines.
‘Ideas can be abused by unscrupulous people and this one is no different,’ Robertson says. ‘Moderate stress can be beneficial; severe stress not. Most people with mental illness suffer extreme stress and “just getting over it” is not and should not be an option.’
In the end, stress itself is not the issue – it’s a response to a certain set of circumstances. The issue is how we process this response, which is why we need to use it, not lose it…
WHAT NEXT? The next time you feel stress getting on top of you, use this simple breathing technique from Prof Robertson’s The Stress Test, to control the flow of noradrenaline and harness stress for good. Close your eyes and breathe in to the count of five, then breath out to the count of five. Do this a couple of times and you’ll notice a definite change, because your locus coeruleus – the part of your brain that generates noradrenaline – is chemosensitive, which means it can perceive changes in how much carbon dioxide is in your blood. Control this with the breathing exercise to maintain your optimum noradrenaline level.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.