Can Stress and Wellbeing be Your Friend?

In our fast paced world, summer is a time to take vacation and relax more. It is a perfect opportunity to learn more about how to improve your sense of wellbeing and have a new look at what stress does in your body and new ways to handle it. You’ll be amazed to learn a simple way to make stress your friend! It is all about your mind, some essential training and your social connections.

Training Your Brain for Wellbeing

In a recent article by Kate Love titled The Neuroscience of Wellbeing, she refers to Neuroscientist, Richard J. Davidson who says that wellbeing is not a static thing but a set of skills that we can practice and strengthen, just like learning to play a musical instrument. He refers to four keys to wellbeing:

Resilience – the ability and speed to which one recovers from adversity. “We know that individuals who show a more rapid recovery in certain key neural circuits have higher levels of wellbeing. They are protected in many ways from the adverse consequences of life’s slings and arrows

Outlook – a positive outlook on life increases our wellbeing. “Here, unlike with resilience, research indicates that simple practices of loving-kindness and compassion meditation may alter this circuitry quite quickly, after a very, very modest dose of practice.”

Awareness – when we focus on what we are doing, and our minds are not wandering, we actually feel better about ourselves.

Generosity – when we act generously by volunteering and giving compliments, we become happier in ourselves. “There are now a plethora of data showing that when individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they actually activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering wellbeing.” By training our brain, we can create neural pathways for wellbeing, especially when we are faced with adversity. As Davidson says, “Happiness and wellbeing are best regarded as skills.” We just have to keep practicing.

Can Stress Be Your Friend?

We are constantly reading and learning about techniques on how to decrease our levels of stress and although these techniques can be quite helpful, the ability to look at the upside of stress was of great interest to me. I was listening to a TED talk titled, How to make stress your friend with Kelly McGonigal. She referred to a study with 30,000 adults in US done for eight years and asked them all what level of stress they experienced and if they believed that stress was harmful for their health. They reviewed public records to see who died. People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increase risk of dying. But that was only true for those that believed stress is harmful for your health. If we think about the physical aspects of the stress response such as a pounding heart and increased heart rate and faster breathing, we can think that this is the body’s way of getting you prepared for the stressful event and making you more able to deal with the stress. It was shown that those people that had a more positive way of looking at stress even using it to get geared up for an event, actually did not exhibit the same physical effects of stress such as constricted blood vessels.

Science has shown that when you change your mind about stress you can change your body’s response to stress. Another study showed that there was no increase in dying as a result of a stressful event if you cared for others and had good social connections and support. An amazing dimension of stress that Ms. McGonigal discussed in this TED talk was that the body releases the neuro-hormone Oxytocin during stress. This hormone is known as the “cuddle hormone” as it is released when you hug and at other times. This hormone released during stress primes your brains social instincts to strengthen close relationships and enhance empathy. By the pituitary gland releasing this hormone during stress, it nudges you to get support. It also helps your blood vessels to stay relaxed during stress and helps heal and regenerate the heart. I was amazed at this data noting that the stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience and that mechanism is human connection, according to Ms. McGonigal. So the importance of your mindset and your social connections as well as your level of empathy and compassion cannot be overstated.