Stress and the Compassionate Heart
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Stress is one of the modern day challenges we all face. We try to manage our stress, exercise, meditate, think good thoughts, all in an attempt to wrangle it into a contained space, where it won’t overwhelm us. There may, however, be a silver lining to all this stress.
I couldn’t help but smile as I read through Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for you, and How to Get Good at It. I had seen her TED talk on the subject a few years ago, and she had touched me with her heartfelt desire to make up for years of helping to perpetuate the ‘stress is all bad’ myth. McGonigal is a health psychologist at Stanford, and for years perpetuated the idea that stress makes you sick and you need to have less of it. She has since taken an abrupt turn-around on the subject.
While she presents a variety of compelling reasons why stress can be good for us, (once we get good at it), what has stayed with me is the idea that our body has, as McGonigal says, “a built in mechanism for resilience, and that mechanism is human connection”. She adds, “Stress gives us access to our hearts; the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning through connecting with others, and our pounding physical heart, working so hard to give us strength and energy.”
While stress is well-known for activating the ‘fight or flight’ response from our nervous system, it can also kick into gear our ‘tend and befriend’ response. This response is more recently recognized, seen most often in women, many of whom react to stress by calling a friend. McGonigal claims that this response, from a biological standpoint, reduces fear and increases hope. This often over-looked part of our stress response is gently prodding us to reach out and share the load of our troubles. We then feel supported, and can begin to find hope for the future.
Dubbed ‘the cuddle hormone’ oxytocin is as much part of our stress response as the adrenaline that gets our hearts thumping in our chests when we are anxious. It is the biological base of the tend and befriend response, and of our ability to find resilience in the face of stress. If we let it, it motivates us to seek out social support, (though many choose other coping mechanisms, such as isolation and addictions), and it also works in an interesting way on our cardiovascular system. Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory, and it helps cells in our heart regenerate. It also relaxes our blood vessels, mimicking the state they are in when we are experiencing hope, joy and courage.
McGonigal suggests that how we view our physiological response to stress; heart thumping, constricted breathing, has everything to do with how stress affects us. If we view these changes as our body being helpful, allowing us to “rise to the challenge”, than we can seek support from those around us.
However, it’s not just seeking support that is helpful. McGonigal shares that an effective way to transform stress is to help someone else. In doing so, we activate the release of more oxytocin, enhancing its’ ability to help our body physiologically manage the effects of stress. Psychologically, we don’t feel so alone, we shift our perspective, and avoid feeling defeated by life. While it doesn’t necessarily matter how lofty or noble the helping of others feels, what seems to be most important is that we find unexpected or novel ways to help. We become more resilient by seeking out these spontaneous ways of giving in our daily lives.
We don’t get to choose when stress enters our lives, it just shows up, unbidden. But when it arrives, we do have a choice of how we react to it. By reaching out to others, both asking for support, and offering the same, we remove the isolation that can accompany stress. We remember that we are all connected, that stress affects all of us at some point, and that through our inter-connection, we can come through the other side together, and just possibly, be better for having gone through it.