Just as a glass of red wine can make us healthier but ten glasses can result in a terrible hangover (and possibly alcohol poisoning), a little stress can focus our attention and stimulate us to dig within for new ways to grow... but too much is likely to hurt.
It's been estimated by the American Psychological Association that over 80 percent of us suffer from chronic low-grade stress. Chronic or elevated stress burns us out,
and can kill.
People who live near airports and simply deal with the stress of giant airplanes roaring above them have higher rates of cardiac arrest than those who don't. People who deal with a controlling or uncommunicative boss have a 60 percent higher chance of developing coronary heart disease than those who don't. Unmanaged stress, simply from having a sense of disempowerment at work, can be more dangerous than smoking or high cholesterol.
Stress leads to tangible changes inside many the cells of the body. Stress triggers specific genes to express proteins which lead to inflammation; and chronic inflammation is associated with killers such as heart disease and cancer. Over time, stress reduces our ability to prevent ageing, heal wounds, fight infections, and even be successfully immunised. Excess stress also stops us learning new things, and if we aren't learning, we aren't growing.
Whether our stress is due to worry, fear, confusion, over-work, or being overwhelmed, if we let our powerful, biological stress response dominate our everyday lives, we may survive to pass on our genes... but are unlikely to thrive as we do so.
So here are five science-inspired, wisdom-wired 'Thrive Hacks' for banishing stress from your life, taken from my book Switch On: Unleash your Creativity & Thrive with the New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough
1. Breathe, stop (and shake)
When we are stressed, adrenaline gets pumped throughout the body, increasing our heart rate and making us breathe both fast and shallow. According to Harvard Medical School, just a few, easy deep breaths -- ideally from your abdomen not your neck -- will reset the system a little and shift you toward relaxation.
Stress also tends to leave a build up of energy within that keeps us out of balance. A great way to discharge it quickly (so you don't divert this energy into anger or fear) is to shake, exercise or dance it out. If you feel the tell-tale signs of stress building up within, I recommend a 1 minute nano-rave at home or even in the bathroom at work.
2. Get curious
Your upper brain contains, amongst other things, your prefrontal cortex - which plays a major role in attention, motivation and executive thinking. It doesn't work very well when under stress. In fact, we have to wait until we're calm before it can help us approach situations with maximum insight and intelligence.
Curiosity hacks the stress response by engaging our upper brain and prefrontal cortex... shifting us into reflection rather than rumination (which is what we are doing when we toss worries around our mind over and over again). On study has shown that the more curious we are, the better the quality of our attention. So we can create the right conditions for ourselves to be creative and adaptable with the stresses and strains of life by staying curious.
3. Hug it out
Hugging a loved one releases oxytocin, which reins in our stressed-out sympathetic nervous system, and seems to drive the repair of muscles, brain tissue and neurones. The more often we hug, the lower our heart rate and blood pressure tends to be, and so the more resilient we become to stress. Give someone you trust a hug. Hugging strangers can actually create more stress!
4. Get into your body
The insula in our cerebral cortex integrates information from the brain and body together. Advanced meditators, experienced warriors, and top athletes have a highly developed insula. They share a heightened ability to sense what's going on in their bodies and act on it. They can anticipate a change in emotional state, which then helps them stay in peak condition during moments of stress on the battlefield. By getting to know your own body sensations better, you can boost the capacity of your insula to help you navigate through life.
Elite troops and meditators who have increased insula activity also have enhanced vagus nerve tone, which seems to help them perform better under stress. Doctors have been experimenting with stimulating the vagal nerve within the chest to treat depression and increase the speed of healing after paralysis from stroke. Scientists at McGill suggest that you can activate your own vagal nerve and builds its tone through breathing deeply and relaxing.
5. Feel the love
Feelings of love and connection melt away stress. One study has shown that the release of oxytocin (which happens when we feel love) reduces the stress hormones flooding the system of couples that are in conflict. Another study has shown that when feeling romantic love, people think more expansively and less analytically, have a much longer-term outlook, and are more creative. When people are horny and turned on but not actually in love, they think in a more short-term and less creative way!
So take charge of your stress levels by feeling loved and loving. For extra benefits, avoid fighting before bed, which can increase stress and make our sleep worse; and sleep next to your lover. Its been shown to be able to reduce the dangerous chemicals of stress.