I am sitting on the ground weeding our tomato plants. I gratefully take refuge in useful tasks like gardening and cooking. Busy hands almost always un-busy my mind. But that’s not working for me right now.
Instead I’m thinking about several editing projects nearly due. I also need to plan a class, complete a volunteer training program, deal with a health insurance hassle, and prepare because we have nine people coming over for a meal tomorrow. Mental fuss is erasing me from the garden.
I take a deep breath, choosing to put myself right back where I am. That works. I hear birdsong, hear the plop of a frog in the pond. Soon I’m complimenting our plants on their sturdy stems and reveling in the breeze.
I learned the word eustress while researching my first book. The term was created by adding the Greek prefix “eu” — meaning “good, healthy” to the word “stress,” It’s defined as a positive stress response, often generated by a demanding but worthwhile effort. Stress is inherent in growth-producing situations. We stress our bodies to reach greater levels of physical ability, breaking down muscle to build it stronger. We tear down old limitations when challenging ourselves to something hard for us like taking on a public speaking role, mastering a new job, or asserting ourselves in a tough situation. Stressors like these, even if we haven’t exactly welcomed them, help to strengthen us.
We’ve long been told stress is bad for us. Maybe that perception is bad for us too. A few years ago a study was done to determine if our beliefs about stress affect our health. Nearly 30,000 adults were asked how much stress they’d experienced over the previous year and if they thought stress was harmful to their health. Then their health records were tracked for the next eight years. The results were surprising. People who most strongly believed that stress impacted their health, and then went on to experience a great deal of stress, exhibited a 43% increased risk of premature death over that time.
Research psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites this study at the start of her TED talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend. When we’re in a stressful situation our pulse rate increases, we breathe faster, often sweat. Most of us interpret those physical changes as signs we aren’t coping well under pressure. But what if we saw those as indicators our bodies are energizing to meet the challenge?
Participants in another study at Harvard University were told to interpret these symptoms as helpful. They learned to recognize that a pounding heart prepares us to take action. Faster breathing brings more oxygen to our brains. People taught to view stress responses as promoting performance were less anxious, more confident, even showed fewer physical signs of stress. And although blood vessels typically constrict during stress (making chronic stress damaging to our hearts), people who viewed the stress response as helpful exhibited more relaxed blood vessels, the sort of reaction typically seen in moments of positive emotion.
Dr. McGonigal goes on to explain something even more remarkable. She reminds us that we think of oxytocin as a love hormone. It prompts us to strengthen close relationships, especially the mother-child bond. It’s released when we snuggle with someone we love, when we play with a pet, and yes, when we’re stressed. As she says in her TED talk,
“Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about…
But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you….
Oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain. It also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart, and the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support, so when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone. Your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.
A final note by Dr. McGonigal. Even people who are dealing with a great deal of stress have no increase in mortality if they also reach out to help others.
I don’t mean for a moment to minimize dangerously depleting forms of stress, especially long-term stress. I’ve had some miseries the last few years that include having to cancel a book contract, getting a difficult diagnosis, and someone I love removing me from her life. My family has been on a crisis hamster wheel too including financial problems, health complication, and my husband being life-flighted from one hospital to another last month. (He’s going to be okay.)
I acknowledge there are much larger stress-related issues undermining people. Some of us are temperamentally more sensitive to stress, many of us are permanently affected by adverse childhood experiences, and many deal every day with the crushing effects of poverty, prejudice, and violence.
Right now I am bringing in an armload of fresh tomatoes. There’s dirt under my fingernails and a remnants of the straw we use for mulch falling from my knees. I affirm to myself that my obligations stem from work I love. That I’m eager to volunteer in a new program. That our insurance bills result from medical interventions that made a positive difference. That I am grateful to the core for every loved one coming here tomorrow. When I reframe these small stresses into blessings it makes all the difference.