Co-authored by David Laramie, Ph.D.
You know that stress is supposed to be bad, but do you know what to do about it? To make this even more complicated, did you know that all stress is not bad and that it can even be helpful? A number of recent news stories have seemingly turned the conventional narrative on its head and suggested that we should befriend stress, rather than get rid of it. (MacMillan, 2014) How do we reconcile this with the longstanding knowledge that stress is associated with major chronic health conditions and most doctor visits (Boone & Anthony, 2003), and has a negative impact on mental health (Charles et al., 2013)?
Let's put the straw man argument to rest -- stress is neither good nor bad, and arguments on either side are just too simplistic. Rather, stress is simply a deeply-rooted physical response to being challenged. We all have a stress response, aka fight or flight or freeze, for a reason -- millions of years of evolution have determined that it is essential to survival. The key is to make it work for us. This means turning it on and milking it when appropriate and turning it off when its not needed.
The stress response, contrary to conventional thinking, can in fact be a blast. Everyone knows that it can be extremely stressful to watch a tight playoff game or a Hollywood thriller. There is a reason that toddlers clamor to be thrown in the air and adults line up to be terrified at a haunted house. We knowingly pursue these chances to turn on the stress response. Why? Because when stress feels safe and controlled, it can be a lot of fun.
Issues arise though when the stress response is not controlled and judiciously turned off so our body can rest. Because today's world is "open 24 hours" and constantly stimulating, we need to be smart about how we utilize this ancient and powerful system. It is not a sign of weakness to struggle with stress. However, we become weaker when the stress response is not used wisely. Evolution has endowed us with this powerful double-edged sword for a reason, so why not learn to wield it properly?
The stress response was designed across millions of years to turn on in an instant in response to danger. A zebra running from a tiger needs maximum power NOW. If you are on a dark street and hear sketchy footsteps, you definitely need increased focus and the power to run away or prepare for a fight. Similarly, if you are up against a deadline with the boss breathing down your neck, your stress response can be a tremendous help. It provides a rush of endorphins and enables energy and focus to shoot up. Problem solving and productivity can go up with the stress, especially when we recognize that our body is rising to the occasion. A number of studies have demonstrated that if people understand that the stress response is helpful, they perform better under pressure. (Tugend, 2014) So the next time you feel your heart racing and palms sweating as you stare down a challenge, celebrate that your entire nervous system is rising up and getting your back!
When it comes to stress, modern humans get in trouble in two ways. One is turning on the response when its not needed. Our bodies do not need full survival mode to be turned on simply because we are stuck in bad traffic or the barista messed up the order. In these cases, the stress response becomes damaging because the body has no use for the massive shifts in blood flow and energy. The mobilization of these precious resources goes to waste and wears us down.
The other problem is that many people do not know how to turn off the stress response and let its counterpart take over -- what some call the rest and repair response. If we return to the zebra, if it is lucky enough to escape the tiger, instinct causes it to shake off the massive arousal of energy and to slow down, so that its body can return to homeostasis. In doing so, inflammation drops, immunity rises, and the body begins the work of healing from any damage sustained during the original challenge. The rest and repair response allows for a return to balance, and prepares the body for future stressors. We all know how to turn on the stress response, but how many appreciate the value of turning on the repair response? The good news is that it can be readily learned by anyone.
The catch here for all of us is that unlike the zebra, our minds love to rehash fears and excel at worrying and holding grudges. In doing so, we automatically turn on the stress response, even though the challenge being faced is coming from within. That's right, the gift of our extraordinary capacity for thought and reflection can turn against us when we ruminate and unintentionally turn on the stress response. The answer lies in being able to monitor our thoughts and shift our focus of attention, based on what is appropriate for the situation. In doing so, you determine whether and how much the stress response is engaged.
We all know that both men and women require good stress management to be happy and healthy. However, this article is aimed at men for one hugely important reason. Research suggests that men tend to use avoidant strategies like denial and distraction rather than pro-active, vigilant approaches when dealing with difficult challenges. (Courtenay, 2011) Unfortunately, this tendency to deny distress can lead to neglected and damaged minds and bodies. This is evidenced in the fact that for nearly all of the 15 leading causes of death, men die at higher rates than women. (Courtenay, 2011) Men are more than twice as likely as women to do nothing about their stress. (APA, 2010) When they do try, only 30 percent of men are successful in managing stress. (APA, 2010)
So what's a man to do? We humbly suggest that you learn to take charge of your nervous system and make it work for you. You will be in good company. Did you know that for several years the American military has been studying how to increase mental toughness and resilience among combat troops? (Paul, 2012) Troops are being trained to hack their nervous systems using a variety of tools including Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training. (Watson, 2013) Similar techniques are utilized by first responders and professional athletes and musicians. In fact, right now, you can use a special breathing technique that is so effective, police and military are taught to use it in the middle of combat. The government even developed a free app specifically for practicing. Check out http://t2health.dcoe.mil/apps/tactical-breather. Its a perfect example of a simple but remarkably powerful way to get a grip on the nervous system.
Through the deliberate application of self-awareness and informed practice, men can be empowered to take advantage of the million-year-old technological wonder that is the nervous system. Make the most of this powerful ally by learning when to turn it on or off and how to do so.
Dr. David Laramie is a licensed psychologist with a deep belief in the importance of integrative and mind-body approaches to mental health. He practices at the Akasha Center for Integrative Medicine, where he also co-leads the PowerTools for Men stress workshop. He was the 2014 President of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association and gives talks and media interviews regarding his research on healthy cell phone use.
American Psychological Association. (2010) Gender and Stress. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2010/gender-stress.aspx
Boone, J. L., & Anthony, J. P. (2003). Evaluating the impact of stress on systemic disease: the MOST protocol in primary care. JAOA: Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 103(5), 239-246.
Charles, S. T., Piazza, J. R., Mogle, J., Sliwinski, M. J., & Almeida, D. M. (2013). The wear and tear of daily stressors on mental health. Psychological science, 24(5), 733-741.
Courtenay, W.H. (2011). Dying to be men: Psychosocial, environmental and biobehavioral directions in promoting the health of men and boys. New York: Routledge.
Crum, A., Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 104(4), 716-33.
MacMillan, A. (2014, August 21). 5 weird ways stress can actually be good for you
Fox News. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/health/2014/08/21/5-weird-ways-stress-can-actually-be-good-for/
Paul, A.M. (2012, April 19). Can You Instill Mental Toughness? Time
Retrieved from http://ideas.time.com/2012/04/19/can-you-instill-mental-toughness/
Tugend, A. (2014, October 3) The Contrarians on Stress: It Can Be Good for You. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/04/your-money/the-contrarians-on-stress-it-can-be-good-for-you-.html?_r=0
Watson, J. (2013, January 19) Marines studying mindfulness-based training
Yahoo News. Retrieved from http://news.yahoo.com/marines-studying-mindfulness-based-training-184225539.html