The Biology of Courage: We are designed to create, to think deeply, love profoundly, and act purposefully.
In living this life we are sometimes called upon to do things that are difficult and perhaps stressful.
However, our habit of occupying our minds with trivialities, or our hearts with worry, instead of doing the work that progresses our career or our happiness is really just self-sabotage in full force.
"I believe in the evolution of the mind, the heart, and the soul of humanity. I believe in improvement. I believe in growth. There is nothing quite as invigorating as being able to evaluate and then solve a difficult problem, to grapple with something that seems almost unsolvable and then find a resolution.”
Gordon B. Hinckley, Stand for Something, 2000, p. 62
When, in the name of avoiding stress we use our ability to think and love deeply to distract us onto things that require neither depth of thought, or are of little consequence, we do ourselves a tremendous disservice.
I know I've allowed this to happen to me. I have awakened to the distraction sometimes too late to prevent my own stumble and bruising, and have found the need to find my way back through the briers and thorns laid by my own pride.
The noise of the world can overwhelm us, distract us, and drag us off the path that would otherwise lead to our greatest happiness. However, it is only on that path where we can have true perspective and can think clearly and creatively about how to overcome the obstacles and roadblocks of our lives.
A Deadly Combination?
One of the things that distract us are feelings of overwhelm and stress. Millennials have officially become the most stressed out Generation of American, with their parents, Generation Xers, running a very close second. We live in a time of demanding jobs, divorce, single parenting, violence, financial woes and career uncertainty. There is a 24/7 endeavor to keep up with texts, emails, and Instagram threads and record high rates of anxiety and depression. Stressful situations abound. Perhaps even this article is beginning to stress you out a bit.
For years, psychologists have written articles, taught classes and workshops teaching people that stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced and managed.
In her book, The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, shares with us a finding that turns that belief on its head. Studies show that while high levels of stress increased the risk of dying pre-maturely by 43% this was only true for participants in the study who also believed that stress was harmful to their health.
People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who had reported experiencing very little stress.
The researchers concluded that it wasn't stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 American may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health….. That would make "believing stress is bad for you" the 15th leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide."
So the question you have to ask is, can changing how you think about stress make you healthier?
The answer would appear to be yes. If you change your mind about stress and how you think about stress, you can change your bodies response to stress.
"Go ahead. Stress me out!"
At the University of Rochester, stress researcher Jeremy Jamieson, used the Trier Social Stress Test, the most infamous and efficient method for inducing stress in a research setting to test this theory. Involving an unrehearsed speech about your personal faults and a relatively complicated math challenge while others rush you and judge your performance harshly, it’s known for making even the calmest and most confident of people break a sweat.
The combination of impromptu public speaking and math combined with negative and unsupportive feedback, for most, is a sure-fire stressor. "If you were actually in this study," says Dr. McGonigal, " you'd probably be a little stressed out. Your heart might be pounding; you might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat. And typically, we interpret these physical changes as anxiety, a sign that we aren't coping very well with the pressure."
"But" she goes on to say, "what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized [and] was preparing you to meet this challenge? Now that is exactly what participants were told in this study. Before they went through the social stress test, they were taught to rethink their stress responses as helpful. That [the] pounding [of your] heart was preparing you for action. If you were breathing faster, that’s great, it means you’re getting more oxygen to your brain. Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident." What Dr. McGonigal found most surprising, however, was how their physical stress response changed.
"In a typical stress response," she explains, “your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict. This is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It's not healthy to be in this state all the time. But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Their heart was still pounding, but [the relaxed blood vessels are] a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.
The doctor further points out that “ Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. - this is what the new science of stress reveals” - How you think about stress matters.
Our ability to care for ourselves and for others in times of stress has always been part of our design.
Oxytocin has been nicknamed the cuddle hormone because it is released when you hug another person and during other intimate situations. It encourages kindness and increases empathy. What many people don’t know, however, is that Oxytocin is as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound.
It motivates you to seek support, share how you are feeling. With Oxytocin as part of your stress response, you are better prepared to notice when others are also struggling so you can be supportive. When trials in life occur, your stress response encourages you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
Oxytocin also acts on your body, it is a natural anti-inflammatory, helping your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress and the heart itself has receptors for this hormone, helping the heart cells regenerate and heal, strengthening the heart.
And the more you reach out to others under stress or seek to support someone else, the more of this hormone you produce. Human connection in times of stress makes you increasingly resilient to stress.
There is a study conducted by the University of Buffalo that supports this. A thousand adults in the U.S. were asked, what is by now, a familiar question: “how much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked “How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbors, people in your community?” and then they used public records for the next five years to find out who died.
Major life stressors like financial difficulties or family crisis increased the risk of dying by 30%, but that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. None. Caring created resilience.
The world of science is now beginning to see that the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable as once taught. Our ability to care for ourselves and others during stressful times has always been part of our design. Knowing this truth about how well your body is prepared for these times, how you think and act, can transform your experience of stress.
When you choose to view your stress response as helpful instead of something to escape from, you create “the biology of courage”. And science now understands something that we need to be reminded of: when you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience.
Trust that your body is designed so that you can handle life’s challenges and that, not only don’t you have to face them alone, you were designed to seek help and be of help in times of stress and need.
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Loria, Kevin, “It’s official; millennials are the most stressed-out generation” , February 6, 2015
Fry, Richard, “Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation”, April 25, 2016
McGonigal, Kelly, Ph.D., The Upside of Stress, Avery, second edition May 5, 2015