Make Stress Your Friend

In the past few years I’ve had to rethink my view of stress. Based on solid research from University of Wisconsin – Madison, there is evidence that stress may not be as bad for us as believing stress is bad for us. In fact, as many as 43% more people died when they believed stress was bad for them even when their stressors were less intense than their stress-friendly peers. That’s right, believing stress will kill you, can kill you!
This weekend I had a big reminder that I am not alone in this world. Thankfully, there was no emergency that necessitated this reminder. I simply needed help doing something I could not do myself. My wife and I asked for help and help was given. Some helpers I had never met. So what does this have to do with stress?
The stress of preparing my part for this project focused my mind, prioritized my behaviors, and increased my awareness of what needed to happen and how we could do it safely. In other words, stress was my friend. I also had a sense that the stress I was feeling had a purpose and was related to something important to me, my children’s happiness. Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal in her TED Talk “How To Make Stress Your Friend”  presents the research and reasoning for why stress is not our enemy.
In my stressful weekend project I was reminded that social support in the face of stress is a protective factor. Having close relationships and feeling that you can rely on others brings about biological changes that protect us against stress. One such change is the release of oxytocin. This hormone is also known as the cuddle drug. Oxytocin helps us to feel calm, connected, and courageous. Oxytocin also has a cool side effect of protecting your heart by binding to special receptors in heart cells. This effect blocks the negative side effects of stress hormones. Oxytocin is released during pleasant social interactions. For example, hugging for 20 second or longer may stimulate the release of oxytocin. It is also released in higher doses during sexual activity.
So how do we make stress our friend beyond seeking out social support and loving relationships? Embracing stress and the events that stress us out will help. For example, recognizing that the increased heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure prepare your body and mind to meet the demands of the stressful challenge. Breathing rate increases oxygen intake. Increased heart rate moves that oxygenated blood to meet the energy needs of the body. Increased blood pressure directs that blood flow to specific areas. So smile when you feel the stress coming on and know that your body is preparing for action, and seek out help from others.
For more information on how stress is good for your body and mind check out this article, “7 ways stress does your mind and body good”.
For more strategies on how to make stress your friend contact Chris Clark Wellness Associates at 307-630-3466 or find us at http://www.WAcounseling.com.

Reference:
Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality. Health Psychology : Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 31(5), 677–684. doi:10.1037/a0026743

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Psychological Flexibility

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Wellness Associates is all about improving performance and quality of life. We all know that physical and mental health impact each other. Today I’d like to take a concept most are familiar with in the physical sense and relate it to the emotional and psychological. Flexibility is the ability to move joints and limbs through a full or functional range of motion. Without flexibility the strength your body has is limited. I’m sure at some point you’ve dealt with an injury or the stiffness and temporary inflexibility that comes with over-exertion at the gym or a hard day’s work. Regardless of the reason for our inflexibility it restricts our behavior and movement.

In life sometimes we become mentally inflexible. We get stuck thinking things ‘must’ be a certain way or that ‘I have to’ do this or that. These statements of absolutes (like must, have to, can’t, won’t) are often a clue that we are thinking inflexibly. Inflexibility often leads to a need for control.  Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes we need to be stubborn, but it can lead to problems if we believe or cling to these inflexible ways of thinking when not helpful. Sometimes our inflexibility is behavioral. For example, sometimes we may think we need to do somethings in a certain order. Some routine is good, but when the routine turns into a ritual then it can be problematic. Perhaps we rely on behaviors like drinking (alcohol) or eating or using substances to control our internal states of emotion or thoughts.

Psychological flexibility is all about doing what works and doing what is important to you in the situation. Sometimes we get stuck in a pattern of avoidance, inaction or procrastination because the conditions for some behavior or activity are not met the way we had anticipated or hoped. But what if we can open up to a situation, even if it is uncomfortable or sub-optimal. Now I’m not suggesting you to settle for mediocrity. I am suggesting that sometimes we get caught in a trap thinking that we need or want to get rid of fear, anxiety or self-doubt and then we can live the life we want or be happy. This is a trap we set for our self. So how do we get out of this trap?

There are three skills related to mindfulness that play a major role in helping us to act in ways that are more confident, intentional and meaningful. These skills are defusion, willingness, and engagement.

Defusion is the process of separating from thoughts and allowing them to just be, allowing them to come and go without getting hooked by them or doing what they say. Defusion gives us space between our thoughts and actions. Thoughts that may be self-defeating, unhelpful, or painful can be observed, noted, (and here is the different part) left alone. What if we don’t have to change or get rid of them?

Willingness is the second skill. It could also be called acceptance or expansion. Opening up to and making room for difficult and uncomfortable emotions, sensations, and feelings is the essence of willingness. Fear, anxiety and anger tend to bully us around. They bait us into thinking we must either act on them or get rid of them. But what if we can just let them come and go or let them be? What if the negative experiences we have with these emotions come from all the efforts and time we put into trying to change or get rid of these worries, anxieties and fears? What if we can save that energy and those resources we’ve been pouring into trying to stop or change our negative emotions and put them into our passions and values?

Engagement is about knowing what is important to you and acting on those things. Engagement is also about being present and aware of what is happening in the present moment. It allows you to bring a sense of curiosity and special attention to what we are actually experiencing.

These skills allow us to be more fluid and intentional in our behaviors. We can shed the shackles of symptom management and getting rid of unwelcome thoughts and emotions. As we make room for these unwanted events they lose much of their power and we make available more of our resources for pursuing valued action in our lives.

In the physical world, flexibility brings a level of usefulness to any level of strength or endurance. Similarly, the function of psychological flexibility allows greater functionality of mental power, capacity, and usefulness than mere stubbornness or sheer will power.

Practicing these skills of defusion, willingness, and engagement can help you to act with more confidence, enjoy valued activities, and enhance relationships. If you would like more specific information on how to develop these skills or apply them in your life, please contact Chris Clark Wellness Associates at 307-630-3466 or check us out at WAcounseling.com.