In a 2006 study, people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year were 43 percent more likely to die, only if they believed that stress was harmful.
For people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year and didn’t believe stress was harmful were no more likely to die than those people who did not experience stress!
The Power of a Belief
It is not the stress itself, but it is the belief about stress that kills. This study demonstrates the power of belief.
In a sense, you already knew that stress is not always bad. Some people perform the best when they are under stress.
But this research study is not about performance. It is about the effects of stress on your overall health.
You might be performing better under stress, compared to not being under stress, but it might still be impacting your health in the long run.
It is when you believe that stress is not harmful. And it is the interpretation of a stressful experience as a challenge, which comes about from the underlying belief, which prevents the detrimental health effects of stress.
Placebo Effect Taken to the Extreme
This is somewhat like the placebo effect.
In itself, the placebo is inert and has no effect. But it is the belief it can be helpful or beneficial, will actually make it beneficial.
Stress in itself is harmful, is a common knowledge. But if you believe that stress is not harmful, rather a challenge, it stops being harmful.
This research points out that it is worthwhile changing your beliefs about stress.
Stress Is Harmful Right?
By default, you tend to think that stress is harmful.
Why is that the case?
Because by default chronic stress does affect your health in a negative way.
Chronic stress is known to be a factor in obesity, heart diseases, insomnia, depression and digestive disorders. By default, chronic stress is bad for you.
The key is ‘by default’. By default, your belief about stress is going to be that it is harmful.
There are two reasons you come believe that stress is harmful.
- The first reason is a widespread observation through scientific studies that chronic stress leads to deterioration in physical health.
- The second reason is that the actual personal experience of stress is unpleasant. You feel it and you know it doesn’t feel good. You don’t want it.
That first-hand unpleasant experience of stress is what you don’t want and is what help shape our beliefs and ideas about stress.
Fight Or Flight Or Freeze Response
The experience of stress is essential.
This experience of stress is none other than what is popularly known as the fight or flight response. (It is more like reaction rather than response.)
Stress is also known as fight or flight or freezes response.
This response is triggered by a perception of a threat. It could be a physical threat or a psychological threat.
A physical threat is easy to understand. You perceive that your physical health or well-being is in danger.
The psychological threat means the threat to your pride, social status, ego or sense of respect.
The threat doesn’t have to be real. You just have to perceive it.
This perception automatically triggers the fight or flight reaction. Why does it do so?
Because it can very well save your life. Imagine you being presented with a real threat. What if you didn’t do anything about that threat?
You might die if you didn’t do anything about a threat. That is why evolution has equipped has with an automatic response system.
Even with the slightest hint of any form of threat, be it physical or psychological, the fight or flight reaction is triggered.
The reaction in itself is unpleasant and it makes you suffer. But more importantly, it is designed to make you take action.
It either makes you fight, or it makes fly or freeze. And by doing so you increase the chances of your survival.
In that sense, the fight or flight response, which is none other stress, is good for you as it can save your life.
A fight or flight (stress) response has 3 stages.
- Perception of the threat
- Arousal or preparation
- Unwinding or extinguishing of the arousal
Perception of the Threat
This is when you perceive or detect the physical or psychological threat.
Arousal or Preparation
The perception of threat triggers the sympathetic nervous system. It prepares you for fight or flight.
Not only it prepares you for action. It makes you more sensitive to external information. It makes you take in more information from your surrounding.
It makes your pupils dilate so that it can take in more light. It makes your body hair bristle.
The idea is that for the preparation of fight, it is best to collect as much information about your surrounding as you can. That way you are better prepared for the actual fight or the dash.
The heart rate increases. The blood pressure increases. The blood flow is shunted away from nonessential activities like digestion and diverted to the limbs in preparation for action.
The arousal eventually peaks. The threat starts receding.
Unwinding or Extinguishing of the Arousal
As soon as it is perceived that threat is either gone or is going away, the unwinding starts. Because as we will see later the arousal state, although necessary for a short amount of time, is not good for the body if it lasts any longer than necessary.
The parasympathetic nerves system kicks in. It starts withdrawing all the hormones that were called upon during arousal.
The heart rate, the blood pressure and the metabolic rate starts going back to normal. The body starts relaxing back to the equilibrium.
How Much Stress Can You Tolerate?
But, the real question is, how much of stress can you tolerate?
If you ever watched those National Geographic or Discovery channel documentaries about African Savannah, you are familiar with a typical scene.
A lion sneaks up on an unsuspecting zebra. The zebra develops fight or flight reaction. For zebra, it is mostly just the flight (although it definitely does land a few kicks every once in a while).
A chase ensues. There are two possible outcomes. Either the zebra gets killed and eaten by lions. Or the zebra tires lion off and survives.
After a while, you find zebra happily grazing. That is if the zebra survives.
Very soon, the zebra is able to forget about the encounter. It doesn’t seem like the zebra broods about the encounter.
It doesn’t seem like the zebra is especially pissed at lion because it attacked him. Zebra gets back to the norm of happily grazing again.
This makes for the title of a book by Harvard psychologist Robert Sapolsky: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcer!
In the natural world, animals do get stressed, but they don’t seem to suffer from the ill effects of chronic stress that we humans suffer.
Why is that the case?
In order to answer that question, we have to consider following aspects of a stressful event.
- The duration that stressful events last.
- The frequency of the stressful events.
You already saw that stress is the fight or flight reaction. In the natural world, actual fight or flight does take place more often. At the same time in the natural world, the fight or flight reaction seem to resolve or unwind completely.
What I mean is, the zebra is able to go back to grazing happily very soon after the escape. That is unlike a fight or flight reaction experienced by a human being.
The Real Problem with Stress
In your case, when you perceive a threat, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. It pumps a set of hormones to prepare the body for action. Your heart rate, blood pressure and metabolic rate increase among a plethora of other things.
All of that is needed for the action to take place. But it is in your best interest for this reaction to unwind at the earliest. Because if the blood pressure continues to be elevated it could damage kidneys and other vital organs.
If cortisol and another stress hormones continue to be flowing at the elevated level, after a while it starts irreversibly damaging the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
The fight or flight reaction has to stop in due time.
And there has to be ample time between such occurrences for the body to heal or recover.
Actual Fights and Flights Not Allowed
For a stressful event to resolve to end soon, the actual action has to take place. It means, actual fighting or running away has to happen to help stop the stress reaction.
After all, that was the prelude under wich the body was making preparations. It was expecting action to take place.
But in our society, neither fighting or flying is socially acceptable. When you get angry at someone, even though you may strongly feel like slapping that person, the expectation is not to do that. That is just not civil.
So you try to deal with the stress reaction by not actually fighting or lying but trying to gulp up the reaction.
This makes it difficult for the reaction to resolve fully. When you feel stressed and if you don’t take physical action, the stress response lingers and takes a while to die down.
What you can do is take physical action that is acceptable. Can you get on a treadmill, or go for a jog?
This is the reason people use stress balls. Depending upon your physical condition and health, relatively vigorous activities help more.
Setup for Feeling Perpetually Stressed
In today’s world, you don’t have that many physical threat. As a society, we don’t have to worry so much about the lions, tigers and bears so much as we had to one in the past.
But in today’s world, there are many more psychological threats that we experienced compared to the past.
Our lives are much more complex than before. This complexity presents many more opportunities for psychological threats.
Our work environment is very different compared to the past. In the past, we used to be more of independents craftsman.
No, we tend to work more in big groups. This change in work environment also presents more opportunities for feeling stressed.
We make it more difficult for actual stressful events to stop because of non-acceptance of physical action and on top of that you are exposed to many more opportunities where you are likely going to feel stressed.
This makes for a double whammy where before your last stressful events have fully resolved, a new one starts and you find yourself in a state of perpetual semi-fight or semi-flight response.
You suffer the damaging effects of the turbo mode where your body is being constantly kept ready to fight or run.
Your body is not made for such constant stand-by mode and ends up physically suffering the consequences.
How to Cut Short a Stressful Event
Your primary aim is to learn to stop chronic stress, or, at least, prevent the damaging effects of chronic stress.
There are many possible tools and coping skills that you can use to deal with stress. As we saw earlier, the shift in belief about stress seems to be a powerful tool.
When you start believing that the stress is not bad for your health, but is a challenge that you should try to overcome, the fight or flight reaction still develops.
Your heart rate and blood pressure still increase. But apparently some of the characteristics of physiological response change.
For example in a normal stress reaction, the blood vessels constrict. Along with higher heart rate and increased blood pressure, constricted vessels means more likely hood of undesirable events like strokes and atherosclerosis.
But apparently with the change in belief, the vessels don’t constrict. Which seems to be one of the factors why chronic stress doesn’t experience cardiovascular problems.
Mindfulness can also be an effective way of dealing with chronic stress. But the mechanism is very different compared to the change in stress belief.
How Mindfulness Can Help Reduce Stress
As you saw earlier, stress is the fight or flight reaction. The reaction has phases. Initially with the perception of the threat, the reaction starts.
Sympathetic nervous systems kick in and prepare the body. The reaction strengthens and culminates. After a while, the perceived threat eases or disappears.
The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. It unwinds the reaction and withdraws all the preparatory signals and hormones that were dispatched to prepare the body for action.
You go back to the balance or the homeostasis.
With mindfulness, the whole fight or flight reaction can be aborted. The reaction starts with the perception of threat. But in its nascent stage, the reaction is abandoned.
With highly refined mindfulness, as soon as the reaction starts, you catch yourself reacting. And as soon as you become aware of the start of the fight or flight reaction, you catch yourself and in catching yourself the reaction diffuses.
The body isn’t automatically prepared for action. No signals or hormones are dispatched for preparation.
Because the body isn’t prepared for action there is no possibility of body staying in the arousal state for an extended period of time and hence no damage.
You may argue, what about the threat. Yes, as we said earlier, there is a reason why the stress reaction takes place as the action might have to be taken.
To answer that you have to understand that mindfulness in itself doesn’t change anything. Mindfulness is just awareness.
What awareness does is, it makes you realize choices that you have available.
Without awareness, the whole stress reaction goes through its completely cycle automatically. With awareness, you now have the choice of letting the stress response run its course, which is what may really be needed in case of a physical threat.
Or with awareness you see that there is not point in your getting angry at someone because getting angry will not help resolve the situation.
Mindfulness allows you to exercise your analytical ability and your intelligence to clearly comprehend the situation and take the correct course of action depending upon the need of the circumstances.
You are not merely acting out automatically and subconsciously.
Stress is same a fight or flight response.
Stress is a life-saving mechanism. If you never felt stress, you won’t survive too long.
Stress belief seems to be more powerful than actual stress for you well being.
Modern life presents with many opportunities for you to get stressed.
When feeling stressed, taking actual action helps but is socially unacceptable.
Mindfulness can help in gatekeeping the stress reaction.