COLUMN: Mindset critical in ongoing war with stress

Belmont secondary student Emily Crowley considers her stress level

I have always claimed to work well under pressure, a statement based more on excuse than fact. Believing this lie as a survival mechanism – instead of just a byproduct of perfectionism paired with procrastination – is how I choose to cope.

I am not alone.

Those of a similar constitution, the unlucky who find themselves ensnared in a never-ending cycle of stress and anxiety, know that there is no solution. The only option that works is to continue the familiar: feigning ignorance.

Stress, the state of mental tension and worry, enjoys widespread circulation and is considered a toxin, a virus that needs combatting, because it makes one ill.

With the resources and technology of this age, one assumes humanity would have found, or created, a figurative vaccine against stress, some way to effectively remove or suppress it from the human condition.

At TEDGlobal 2013, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, spoke of a study, conducted by Stanford University, which could drastically change the face of the science of stress. She lectured about the general outlook and that this is the time to change that opinion.

As part of the study, McGonigal discovered that the belief that stress is bad is likely more harmful than the stress itself. Drawing from personal experience, McGonigal said she always told patients “stress makes you sick,” and encouraged them to avoid stress-inducing situations.

With that kind of advice, stress becomes an enemy. The negative association derives from the physical reaction to stressful circumstances. Otherwise known as the “fight-or-flight” response it includes accelerated heart and lung action, constriction of blood vessels, salivation, pupil dilation, and shaking.

The shaking is always what gets to me. I can work with anxious energy, but as soon as my limbs start trembling I lose the ability to function. It becomes less of a “fight-or-flight” instinct, and more of an inability to choose between the two.

 

Is it possible to look at the stress response as anything other than uncomfortable and

debilitating? During her talk, McGonigal encouraged the audience to perceive the body’s reaction as positive; varying the thought process can transform a person’s experience with stress.

 

 

“Normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety, or signs that we aren’t coping very well with the pressure,”

McGonigal said. “But what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?”

 

McGonigal compared the stress response to what occurs within the body during moments of courage. For example, increased heart rate translates to one’s body preparing for action, while an increased breathing rate is a greater intake of oxygen working toward more efficient brain function.

There is a concerning aspect of stress: constriction of blood vessel diameter. It is this symptom of the “flight-or-flight” response which names stress as the culprit in certain scenarios involving cardiovascular disease and fatal heart attacks.

However, in the study where participants were told to consider stress helpful to their performance, blood vessels remained relaxed with a safe diameter. McGonigal stated that, “when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.”

Mindset is integral to the ongoing war with stress. McGonigal, who once demonized stress, explained, “I no longer want to get rid of your stress, I want to make you better at [it].”

This message offered me an alternative. I spent so long living alongside stress that it is uncertain whether I could ever break away completely. Perhaps I should re-evaluate the relationship and consider friendship and collaboration as opposed to animosity.

 

The largest obstacle will be transitioning my beliefs, but it does not need to be. I have always viewed mentality as

inflexible, when in reality it should be malleable and elastic. There is the possibility that the lie I have ingrained in my mentality is closer to truth, and all I need to do is realize it.

– Emily Crowley is a Grade 12 student at Belmont secondary.