Q+A on stress By Dr Elizabeth Hughes MD
Question: What is stress?
Answer: To make it short, stress is an emotional response to a situation. It is something you feel. It’s not the situation. It's not the deadline or the crazy traffic or the unreasonable boss or the sick child, anything like that.
Stress is entirely an internal experience, caused by your mental and emotional response to circumstances.
This concept — that stress is an internal response — explains why some people can thrive with a demanding boss, but others crumble. Why some people don’t mind traffic, while others experience road rage. If stress was outside of you, then everyone would have the same experience of stress in all situations.
Question: What’s the connection between stress and the body?
Answer: Whenever you're feeling an emotion, any emotion -- stress, joy, anger, excitement -- your body is releasing hormones and neurotransmitters that changes the chemistry and the fundamental way the body reacts.
It's important to understand that your body doesn't act the same way under every condition. This fundamental fact is overlooked and not taught in schools everywhere, high school, college, even in medical school. I was never taught in any school, at any time that there is a fundamental difference in how the body performs on a cellular level when you’re feeling stressed out versus not feeling relaxed or competent or powerful.
It's important to know that the human body — your body — has this different response. I call the way the body functions “survive mode” (versus the “thrive mode” when you are not feeling stress).
Through the hormones and neurotransmitters which are released when you feel stress, your body switches into a state of minimal functioning. Your body does only what's necessary to survive. Which means every single solitary function of the body alters. How your heart beats, where your blood circulates in the body, how your body digests food, how it uses the energy that it has. Stress changes all of your hormones, it changes your immune system, it affects how the body heals itself after injury. It changes all these parts of your body.
There's no part of your body that isn't affected by stress.
Question: Is stress always harmful?
Answer: In the short term the stress response can be helpful, there's no doubt. The stress response is designed to keep us safe in situations where our lives are threatened. Studies have shown that short term stress — combined with a feeling of control and understanding of how stress can be helpful — can improve performance on tests and public speaking. A few minutes or even an hour or two of stress is okay and you can recover.
But, long term stress is very damaging.
Most of the time our bodies should be in “thrive mode” because that's when we build new cells and that's where we repair damage, that's where we metabolize and absorb food properly. That’s when our brains get rest. This is so important and when you work in “survive mode,” when you're under constant stress, your body can't perform those necessary repair functions. Everything goes haywire.
Question: What is the best way to manage stress?
Answer: I’m going to give you a really interesting answer to that question. I don't think you should manage stress at all. And here's why.
We manage things we want to make the most of. Things like time: there's limited time and you want to manage it so that you use your time to do what makes you happy, productive, successful.
Same thing with money. No matter how much money you have, there's only so much money. So, you want to manage it so you get the most out of your money.
If you run a business or you work in a company, you might manage personnel. That's one of your resources. You might manage your inventory.
Again, things that you have that you want to make the most of.
When you manage stress, you are subtly saying, "Stress is a part of my life. I can't get rid of it. I might as well make the most of it."
I know this approach is controversial. But here’s what I’ve learned from my years of experience, as well as overcoming my own anxiety disorder: You can’t manage stress. You have to neutralize it. Otherwise stress is still running your life in one form or another.
And just in case you were wondering, you don’t have to pick up and move to some fantasy world where you don't have a job or money or anything else that you might think is causing you stress. These situations aren’t what cause stress. How you respond to these situations is.
I’ll say that again: situations do not cause stress. How you respond — what you think, how you feel, and what you do based on what you think and feel — is the cause of stress.
It is completely possible to live without stress by learning how to tap into your body's feeling of health and well-being all the time. You had this ability when you were young, and you can get it back again.
Once you get in touch with that feeling of wellbeing, all the stressors — things like the bad commute, the crazy boss, the deadlines, the sick child — become events that you know you can manage.
Question: What’s the best way to start neutralizing stress?
Answer: The first thing and most important step is to recognize that stress is an internal response, which is generated by you. And therefore can be controlled by you.
This first realization, though it seems like a small step, is the key to neutralizing stress.
If you want to put this into practice in your life, start with something small.
Though it’s natural to want to overcome the biggest source of stress right away, you have to get used to a different way of perceiving and experiencing things in your life.
Try asking yourself these questions:
• Is there another way I can view this situation?
• Is this situation worth damaging my health for?
• What skills or resources do I have that can help me now? (This is an important question to ask, because stress can literally make you foggy brained so that you don’t see answers right in front of you.)
Then take 10 deep, full, slow breaths, lasting 8 to 10 seconds each. This 60 to 90 second ritual can dissolve stress substantially. Start small. Then as you get more proficient and the process comes easily, move on to larger or more challenging issues.
It is a process, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come easily at first. But keep at it. Every bit of effort you make is a win for your health.