Stress is the body’s way of protecting itself by responding to external threats, typically with a fight, flight or freeze response. Physically, stress floods the system with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing heart rate, causing muscles to tighten and preparing the body to respond to danger.
Emotionally, stress creates a variety of feelings, including discomfort, apprehension, irritability, anger, fear or even near-paralysis. The mere idea of stress is stressful. The prevailing thinking is that stress will exhaust, deplete and even kill us. Stress is the enemy.
That thinking is beginning to shift. Studies are showing that the enemy isn’t so much stress itself as our belief about stress. Kelly McGonigal from Stanford, author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, says “The finding I had stumbled across—that stress is harmful only when you believe it is—offered me an opportunity to rethink what I was teaching.” McGonigal began to embrace stress.
Perhaps welcoming stress into one’s life is a healthier approach. Allen E Ivey and Mary Bradford Ivey agree with McGonigal. They explain how counselors approach the management of stress response by looking at stress as a positive rather than as a negative: “One of the key objectives of counseling is positive memory change, with the possibility of brain ‘rewiring.’” The Iveys emphasize the brain-body connection and remind us that stress is necessary for learning, development and physical and mental improvement. Stress can be healthy and positive, approached correctly.
One way of seeing stress as a positive is by acknowledging the constancy of change, accepting unavoidable difficulty, glitches, trouble and sometimes even danger and understanding that flexibility and adaptation are the healthiest responses.
In the past, people worked hard to eliminate stress. They would meditate it away, squash it down, vacation their way out of it or suppress it. The notion that there is some perfect nonstressed, fully relaxed, sustainable equilibrium (homeostasis) is unrealistic and unattainable. A refusal of stress or a fight against it results in tightness, rigidity and more stress.
A newer, healthier concept is called allostasis, which is an active, not static process, one in which the individual understands what it means to move with stress, change oneself adaptively within it by being flexible, adjusting as needed and responding creatively when called upon to solve problems. An allostatic process allows for stability through the inevitability of change.
Peter Sterling from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania explains, “Allostasis describes mechanisms that change the controlled variable by predicting what level will be needed and then overriding local feedback to meet anticipated demand.” This amounts to an ongoing process that rewires the system for positive change. When faced with stress, we have the option to answer a challenge allostatically: responding in a more customized way rather than shutting down, going limp or rigid or running away. With practice, we can override the fight-flight-freeze response.
Another way of changing your perspective on stress is by sitting with it, knowing when to make room for it and even making friends with it. Robert Sapolsky, at Stanford, explains that when you repeatedly think negative thoughts, your body responds physically in much the same way as if you’ve been “gored by an elephant.” Your cortex whispers that you’ve been assaulted by a predator and the rest of your brain goes along with it.
It stands to reason, then, that relaxing into the flow of a fearful feeling while not going into RED ALERT mode will allow you to accept the moment of stress for what it is: a moment of stress rather than a world of stress that will never end. Companionship means being with your stress, accompanying it on the path but not walking over the edge of its plummeting, spiraling drop.
Stress is a constant. What we can do about it is shift our mindset: be willing to outgrow old, maladaptive notions and incorporate newer, healthier ideas. We can change our beliefs to create a healthier, happier life, rewiring our brains to see stress as an opportunity to practice the art of allostasis and as a chance to build a companionable relationship with ever-present adversity and strife.
LaRae Quy, former FBI special agent and founder and director of the Mental Toughness Center, recommends challenging the brain’s built-in confirmation bias. She says, “Too often, we create a rule of thumb at one point in life and never take the time to re-evaluate its credibility. Times change—and so do you.” Our ideas about stress are changing, and we are changing—allostatically—along with them.