If you’ve ever had to deliver a presentation to a big client, had multiple final exams and assignments due in quick succession, or had the disdain fortune of finding yourself in the employ of a nasty manager, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced stress. This word, has arguably infiltrated the daily vernacular of people irrespective of their age, occupation or socioeconomic status. Even babies aren’t exempt from the omnipotence of stress. Research has shown that mothers who experience stress during pregnancy, impart it onto the little human growing inside them.
Understanding The Stress Response
At it’s elemental level, stress is our body’s way of coping with a demand. When faced with a certain stimuli, hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are released into our bloodstream that cause cascading physiological effects such as increasing the rate and force of our heart beat, promote the release of glucose into our bloodstream to act as immediate energy, and our breathing also gains pace. In caveman times, this fight or flight response enabled our hominid species to successfully find dinner, or flee from being a predators dinner. While this is an ingrained physiological, evolutionary, and innate mechanism of ours, stress tends to get a bad reputation for itself because as alluded to earlier on, stress is a daily descriptor of ours, which means, its chronic.
When we have a steady drip of cortisol being released into our bloodstream, there are detrimental side effects to our general health and well being. Part of the fight or flight response involves shutting down systems that are not vital to achieving success with the task at hand. Case in point, if a lion is hounding you down, your digestive system doesn’t need to be hard at work breaking down the Big Mac you ate an hour ago. Therefore, in times of stress, the immune system is chastised, growth is inhibited, and other bodily functions are hampered because the primary focus is to direct any and all resources to completing the stressful task. This is why chronic stress can lead to an increased chance of heart disease, digestive complications, and depression.
Before we continue with our discussion on stress, answer the following question: If you had $2000 in your bank account, would you accept a 50/50 chance of losing $300 or gaining $500?
What was your answer?
Now, would you prefer to keep your account balance of $2000 or accept a 50/50 chance of having either $1700 or $2500 in your account?
Rationally speaking, both questions are asking the exact same thing, yet most people will reject the first questions gamble and accept the second. The underlying cause of this phenomenon is rooted in framing effects; a cognitive bias that leads us to believe one option, circumstance, or piece of information is superior to another simply due to the way the information is presented. In the first question, words such as “losing” and a smaller anchor value in the 300 – 500 range elicit a greater amount of sensitivity than the second question. Similarly, providing someone with constructive criticism can be done in an effective manner by using appropriate framing effects. Advertisers can tout a product or service by framing the positive benefits more strongly than the negatives. Clearly, our minds can be tricked into a decision based off the way we not only perceive the data, but also, interpret it. Ergo, we can apply the principles of framing effects, to stress.
I was recently watching a Ted Talk titled “Make Stress your Friend” by Kelly McGonigal who is a health psychologist. In the talk, she shares a study wherein thirty thousands Americans in the United States were followed for eight years, questioned on their stress levels, and probed about their notions on stress. Using public death records, the experimenters extrapolated data and found that people had a 43% increased risk of dying when they felt stress was detrimental to their health. Conversely, those who had high stress levels, but did not see it as a deterrent to their health, had the lowest risk associated with death. What this means is that 180,000 Americans die prematurely annually because they simply believe stress is bad for them. The hypothesis that is inferred from this study then is if you can change your mindset, change the framing you have of stress, you can change the bodies response associated with it.
That hypothesis was proved to be true through a study at Harvard University. Participants were taught to revaluate their stress response by viewing it as a primer that was revving their body to be successful. The participants were notably calmer, more confident, and while a handful of physiological signs of stress were still in play – increased heart rate, breathing, and sweating – there was a stark difference between these participants and those who did not reframe their stress mindset. As discussed above, in the stress response, blood vessels typically constrict. For those participants who had reframed, their blood vessels actually dilated which serves to be a much more positive cardiorespiratory profile. This picture of physiological changes is common in people who experience deep seated joy and is the configuration seen in acts of courage.
While our framing of stress plays a role in the physiological effects it has on our body, there is also an inherent hormonal mechanism in place that seeks to imbue support during times of stress. Oxytocin, affectionately referred to as “The Hugging Hormone”, is, as we know from my previous post, a social hormone that strengthens relationships. Interestingly enough, oxytocin is released into our bloodstream during times of stress; ergo, stress mechanistically wants us to seek out support to help combat the situation we are facing.