Re-framing Stress to Live Longer

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My second year of training to be a naturopathic doctor was horrific in many ways. It began with performance-based physical exams, which brought with them the crippling feeling of being a deer, stunned by a set of bright headlights, unable to act in the face of the impending doom before me. Before practicals, my stomach would do whatever it wanted, my heart would boom in my chest, rocking my whole body with its force. I swore in these moments that I didn’t know my name, let alone the entire series of steps of a thorough lung and thorax exam. I became a bumbling mess. I hated the feeling.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, author Susan Cain writes that introverted people are paralysed by acute stress, which is why they often shy away from performance-based activities. An extroverted person may feel their heart speed up slightly and feel energized and ready to perform, using that physiological arousal as a cue for action, while an introverted person finds the feeling overwhelming and becomes unable to act at all.

When I entered clinic, I would attempt to hide from the nervousness, firming myself into a hard crust to conceal my jello insides. It was an energy-sucking, internal battle. So, when the performance-based stressors of clinic, practical exams, patient visits and presentations weren’t going anywhere, I decided to re-frame the stress experience.

Instead of telling myself I was nervous, I would tell myself that I was excited, geared up and ready to perform. After all, what, if anything, is the difference between the two experiences other than one has a negative implication and the other a much more positive one? Nervous implies that something bad is about to happen: a mild sense of impending doom. However, I knew from the years I’d spent performing at school that I was going to succeed; I knew my stuff, I knew I had the ability to do well, like an actress who knows her lines and has practised them many times. I only had to go through the motions once again, under circumstances that counted. Excited, better describes what the actress must feel on opening night. She is ready for this, this is what she has been working for. It’s showtime. Excited has positive connotations, we use it to express some of the same physiological feelings of stress – pounding heart, jittery nerves – but we are anticipating something fun and positive that is about to happen and we can’t contain ourselves. We kind of enjoy the feeling. Santa Claus is coming to town.

Kelly McGonigal had the same idea in her research about the stress response. She presents it in her paradigm-shifting Ted Talk. It turns out that stress is not the cause of all disease – hating stress is.

Every single one of my patients is stressed. Even when they say they’re not stressed, I refuse to believe them. Stress is endemic in our society. We all feel the pressure. We overreach ourselves, overcommit ourselves, overwork ourselves. We live in other moments, in other worlds far removed from the here and now. We are stressed, fried, burnt out and many of us live so far above the baseline that we fail to perceive our stressed out state. This chronic stress, which causes cortisol to surge, our blood pressures to rise and our cardiovascular system to shut down, after years of this, eventually leads to our inevitable demise, or so everyone (namely, researchers) says.

However, if we think of stress as something positive – our body is preparing for action, our bodies are stronger, we are becoming more courageous, we are excited – these negative changes don’t take place. Our blood vessels stay dilated, our blood pressure doesn’t go up, our hearts remain stronger and we live longer than anyone else (even those rare breeds of humans who experience low-levels of stress).

We often hear that performers become addicted to the wonderful high of being on stage, on feeling the blood coursing through their veins and being aware of their heartbeat, hearing it as they belt out their lines, sing their songs and execute their triple axles. We know now that that’s because the physiological high we get from stress can be wonderful, if we allow it to be. It doesn’t have to be crippling, stunning and cause us pressure. It can connect us to the rhythms of life and make us feel more alive. And, as it turns out, the more we feel alive, the more we end up staying that way.

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