At the end of my first year of university, my room-mate organized a sky-diving expedition. She and a few of her friends had decided to celebrate the successful completion of their courses by jumping out of an airplane, just for the fun of it. She wondered if I’d like to join in. I didn’t even have to think about it. My answer was a resounding “NO!”, which only made her smile. Clearly, my room-mate and I had very different levels of tolerance for stress.
Recent studies have shown that our tolerance for stress is shaped, at least in part, by how well we were parented as children. In a recent paper published in the journal Developmental Science, Elizabeth Shirtcliff and her colleagues showed that teenagers who experienced “positive parenting” were more resilient, and had better cognitive, behavioural, and psychological development as adults than those whose upbringing was more negative.
The stress level of study participants was measured by recording the amount of cortisol in their saliva during each visit. Often called “the stress hormone”, cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands in quantity whenever you are under stress, so a high level of cortisol would seem to be bad. However, the positively-parented adeolscents from this study had higher cortisol levels than the others.
This runs contrary to what we’ve long been taught about stress and cortisol production – which is to keep both as low as possible! However, it doesn’t run contrary to what Hans Selye wrote in his classic book, “The Stress of Life” back in the 1950’s. In this book, Selye describes two kinds of stress: eustress and distress. Distress, of course, is the more negative kind of stress that results from fear, anxiety, or difficult circumstances, and from which can come a host of chronic health conditions, particularly if the stress if prolonged.
By contrast, eustress is the more beneficial kind of stress that we experience when enjoying a roller coaster ride, starting a new job, buying a home, or pushing ourselves to keep a deadline. One easy way to differentiate between distress and eustress is in the attitude it provokes. Eustress is stress that challenges us, but doesn’t overwhelm us, while distress can crush us, devastate our mood, and crumble our self-esteem. The teenagers in Dr. Shirtcliff’s study may have had higher levels of cortisol, but it increased their ability to successfully manage life, rather than sabotaging it.
The good news is, if the major difference between distress and eustress is merely one of attitude, then approaching our daily stresses from a different angle could change it from life-destroying, to life-affirming. In the December issue of Prevention magazine, psychologist Alia Crum has provided some suggestions for turning a negative stress into something more positive.
One method is to verbally acknowledge why you’re stressed. For example, if you’re stressed from overwork, then rather than dive for the chocolate ice cream as soon as you get home, you should name your stress. Naming the stress switches it from an emotion-driven response in the amygdala of your brain to the planning centre in your frontal cortex, allowing you to feel more control over the situation, so you can plan how to overcome it.
You can also try re-framing your stress. If you have the jitters because of an upcoming social function, try labelling it as excitement, rather than as stress. Excitement also increases cortisol production, but in a more positive way. This can give you more confidence and increase your preformance during the event. Thirdly, you can use your stress to promote action, rather than worry. If you weren’t invited to a party, you can plan your own social event instead, even if it’s just tea with a neighbour.
Of course, daily meditation is one of the best ways to counteract the effects of stress. It not only activates your parasympathetic nervous system, helping to calm you down, but with time, it can also subtly begin to re-wire your brain. After meditating daily for just six weeks, participants in a recent study had greater density of grey matter in their brains, along with improved attention, cognitive performance, and better emotional regulation.
Your cortisol level, and your subsequent ability to handle stress, may have become set according to your childhood environment, but this new research provides hope. Stress may be unavoidable, but if we can approach it with a different attitude, its impact on our health can be managed. Our brains and our bodies are not set. They’re constantly in flux, with a strong ability to change and grow, even in adulthood. Like me, you may not ever develop a desire to jump out of an airplane, but by managing our stress a bit better, we can still dial up the level of adventure in our lives and experience more joy.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.