28 Jun 2020

How to use stress for your own benefit

From Sunday Morning, 10:06 am on 28 June 2020

Stanford University lecturer and health psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal is a long-time stress advocate who says adjusting the way you think about stress can actually change the way your body responds to it.

In 2013 she delivered one of the most popular TED talks of all time about using stress to your advantage, which has garnered more than 23 million views.

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Kelly McGonigal Photo: Ben Krantz Studio / Supplied

Stress is what arises in your brain and in your body when something that you care about isn’t safe, she says.

And our physical reaction to stress isn’t always negative, despite what we hear about the fight and flight response, Dr McGonigal says.

“We all think that the body’s response to stress is always toxic is always harmful, maybe we’ve been told that stress turns us into the worst version of ourselves.”

Actually, stress can bring out the best in you, she says.

“Your biological response to stress goes far beyond fight or flight, you also have a biological stress response called a challenge response, which is when your body gives you energy and focus maybe a little adrenaline rush to help you really perform well under pressure that’s also part of your biology.”

Another useful stress response is social connection, she says.

“When you are stressed you can release hormones and brain chemicals that actually can encourage you to reach out and ask for help that make it more possible to team up with others so you don’t have to deal with that stress alone.”

The familiar feeling of stress, an elevated heart rate for example, are signs our bodies are rising to the challenge of a difficult situation, she says.

“Built into stress response is the capacity to learn from experience, you might be thinking fight or flight but at the very same time your brain is releasing chemicals that help your brain become more resilient as a result of going through something stressful.

“You can learn to lean into and trust your body and your brain’s capacity to engage with stress in ways that are healthy and helpful.”

People who deal with stress effectively have three typical mind-sets, she says.

They trust their capacity to meet the challenges of life, they know they don’t have to do it alone and they see stress as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Her most recent work has looked at the benefits of exercise for the brain.

“Your muscles are basically like a pharmacy and they hold on to the good stuff, the molecules that boost immune function that increase your heart health, regulate blood sugar and affect your brain.

When you move your body, your muscles are pumping out into your bloodstream all of these molecules that are incredibly good for every aspect of your health.”

And some of those molecules target the brain, she says.

“Muscles are pumping out molecules some scientists call hope molecules, because they travel to your brain when you exercise and in your brain they act as a quick anti-depressant, they boost motivation, reduce feelings of stress and anxiety and in the long term the accumulation of those molecules in your brain actually starts to change the structure of your brain to make you more resilient to stress.

“Every time you exercise, no matter what it is, you’re giving yourself an intravenous dose of hope.”