By: Mary Hoofnagle
January can be pretty stressful. Catching up at work after some time off, recovering from prolonged exposure to family stress, mounting debt from holiday purchases, coping with illness in the midst of flu season, failed resolutions, the looming tax deadline, the Polar Vortex…
But there’s good news. You have the power to turn your stress around. My father used to tell me before those dreaded oral presentations in school, “You have to make the butterflies work for you.” I’ll be honest. I used to think he didn’t know what he was talking about. But then I asked him what he meant. He explained how I could take all that nervous energy and realize it is energy. Energy is powerful. Energy can be used for any number of things. I needed energy in that moment to have courage, to speak loudly, to make eye contact and keep connected to my audience, to remember all the things that made me an expert on my topic. I could use the nervous energy for all of those things.
This is remarkably effective, by the way. Before I start a performance or presentation of any kind, I feel all of that energy and say to myself, this is performance energy. My body is giving me what I need to perform.
Kelly McGonigal makes this point in her TED Talk posted below. She spent her career teaching clients, stress is bad for you. Probably citing all the stress facts we’ve become familiar with. Trouble is, just after reading through those facts I become more stressed! McGonigal came across a study that shows it is actually these beliefs about stress that harm us, rather than the stress response itself. In fact, if the study’s estimates are correct, stress beliefs are the 15th leading cause of death in the U.S. last year. That’s ahead of HIV deaths, skin cancer, and homicide.
The implications of that fact are astounding, but most importantly, this new revelation implies that the mind is so powerful that the idea of stress can kill us. Which also means the mind is so powerful that the idea of stress can heal us, make us stronger. We can make the stress work for us.
McGonigal goes on to explain how changing our view of the stress response can make us stronger. If we remember and understand that the stress response is actually preparing our body to rise to a challenge and meet it, we can decrease the negative effects of stress.
Furthermore, stress pushes you to seek out relationship emotional intimacy, and as a result, it can actually strengthen your heart rather than weaken it. Oxytocin, the familiar cuddle hormone is actually a stress hormone. If you aren’t familiar with oxytocin, it is famous for the fact that it is released when we connect to others through meaningful relationship and through physical touch. It is well known that the pleasant effects of oxytocin drive us to connect with others more frequently and on a deeper and deeper level to increase the release of oxytocin.
What is less known about Oxytocin is that it heals the heart and strengthens it. During times of stress your body releases oxytocin to heal the cardiovascular system from negative effects of stress and motivate you to seek out support from others, thus increasing the dosage of healing oxytocin.
Imagine that! We are hardwired to heal from stressful situations by connecting to others. If we physically and emotionally reach out to others during times of stress we can, in essence, get a triple shot of the healing hormone and stress can make us stronger and more connected at the same time.
So I don’t know about you, but I’m taking McGonigal’s advice on New Year’s Resolutions. I’m choosing something meaningful and important to me. I’m changing the way I think about and experience stress.