Article provided by Margaret Kirschner, Certified Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists.
It has been repeated so often, by so many and in various ways: Stress is bad for the body. I have talked often about my stress; how tight my muscles get, how it depletes my energy and limits my thinking. I have listened to others tell me about their stress. It is almost a national pastime. I have encouraged others to explore healthy ways to reduce and release their stress. It turns out though, upon further reflection and research, stress is not always bad and has a definite upside.
Ask yourself this question: how much stress have I experienced recently? A little bit, a moderate amount or a lot of stress? Pause for a second to tune inside your body and find the answer that matches your felt perception best. The perception of stress as having a bad impact on your life may be doing more harm than the stress itself.
In an eight-year study involving around 30,000 adults in the United States, the group of people who reported experiencing a lot of stress and believed stress is bad experienced a 43% higher risk of death than other groups. The group that experienced the lowest risk of death was people who reported experiencing a lot of stress and believed stress is not always bad and sometimes can be good. Their risk was even lower than those who said they experienced a little bit of stress.
If I perceive my life as stressful and I think stress is bad, I’m probably likely to suffer emotional anguish as well as physical ailments such as soreness, fatigue, headaches, etc. If, on the other hand, I perceive my life as stressful and I don’t have much judgment about it or even think it helps me, I’m probably likely to suffer less emotional angst and maybe less physical distress as well.
Turn a Thought Upside Down
Wayne Dyer, author, philosopher and motivational speaker has said “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” When we change the way we think about our own stress, the way our body responds to that stress changes.
The Body Knows What To Do
What do you notice on the inside when you are aware that you are stressed? Many people say they feel their heart beating fast—“like it’s gonna jump out of my chest”. I’ve heard “It’s hard to catch my breath”, “My body gets shaky”, “I get sweaty armpits”, “I feel like running out of the room as fast as I can.” All of these responses that we typically call stress can be perceived differently. The pounding heart is providing abundant energy; the quick and shallow breathing makes lots of oxygen available to the muscles to activate and prepare for quick movements. The sweating that happens under emotional duress is thought to improve our traction and grip, cool the body and send out pheromone signals. All this body wisdom looks a lot like what happens when we experience joy, excitement, strength and courage.
What You Think About Stress Matters
When you notice your body sending messages in the form of sensation, slow down and observe. Ask, “What are you trying to teach me?”
Belief and Biology
Having the thought “This is my body helping me to gather all my resources to meet this challenge” can be an empowering perspective and may foster courage rather than distress. What goes on in the brain is believed by the body, whether it is actually happening or not.
When I watch a movie, and what I see is the actor teetering on the edge of a building with the traffic rushing below and the wind whistling around, I know I’m not actually on the window ledge striving to find balance but my hands get sweaty, my heart beats fast and I feel like gripping my chair for security. My body believes what I imagine. In that moment, I can believe I am stressed and begin to feel uncomfortable gripping inside or I can trust that my body is working well to meet life’s challenges and take a deep breath saying a silent thanks and soften the tension inside. The body responds wisely and I may choose what to believe about that.
A Hormonal Cocktail
The cuddle hormone called oxytocin gets a lot of attention for being one of those feel-good hormones that act as a neuro-transmitter in the brain. It appears to be connected to human emotion, childbirth, breastfeeding and bonding. It fine- tunes the brain toward empathy to help and support folks we care about.
Here is the surprise: It is also a part of the stress response cocktail of hormones including adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. When the body is flooded with stress hormones, including the love hormone oxytocin, it not only prepares us to rise to the challenge, it prepares us to seek support as well. Within the brilliant design of the body under stress, oxytocin helps maintain equanimity by protecting the heart. It keeps blood vessels around the heart open and seems to promote socialization. In that genius process, the desire to seek, reach and respond to social support is heightened.
So, the next time you are aware of that old familiar companion named stress, you might just remember there is something big to appreciate about it: The stress response also provides a mechanism for stress resilience as well.
Help Me Now
What I know helps me through a difficult time is to reflect on its larger meaning rather than seeking comfort from it. Healing may occur in the quest for meaning rather than the search for comfort. It’s not easy but it might help to frame it this way: “Thanks stress for showing up, you’ve got my attention, what are you here to teach me?”
Eddie LeShure is a meditation teacher, Certified Substance Abuse Counselor Intern (CSAC-I), Certified Peer Support Specialist (CPSS), and trained NAMI Family Support Group Facilitator. His primary passion is bringing evidence-based mindfulness practice into the realms of addiction recovery, trauma relief, and self-care. Eddie will be a certified yoga teacher by July, 2018 when he completes a 250-hour teacher training with Asheville Community Yoga.
Margaret Kirschner is a Certified Trauma-Sensitive Yoga Therapist with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT), who specializes in guiding individuals’ mindful emergence from addiction and trauma through the evidence based practices of yoga. With 18 years of experience as a yoga teacher, she offers an integrated approach to thriving in recovery. She is also a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor Intern (CSAC-I).