Pursue What Matters
Episode 52: Book Review: The Upside of Stress
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
We’ve been taught that stress is all that and something that we must avoid at all costs, which right? Good luck with that. Not that not that anyone’s avoiding stress these days. But what if this isn’t true anyway? Well, today, I want to challenge your thinking on stress. And it might just result in some pretty great health benefits for you. So let’s jump on in.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:24
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the pursue what matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Stress, in many ways is the disease of our time. And of course, with COVID on the scene, our stress levels are through the roof. But is stress all bad? You know, we’ve been taught to believe that stress is all bad. And that it is our job to eliminate stress from our lives. But first of all, that is not even possible. And then of course, you know, thinking about COVID? How on earth are you supposed to eliminate stress from your life right now? Not possible. But maybe eliminating stress shouldn’t even be the goal. And perhaps there are some real benefits to stress. So I know that that’s a really radical thought. But perhaps the way we are going about stress is where we run into problems. You know, that’s never happened. Our thinking about something has never gotten us into trouble before. Hmm. Maybe I’m just a little cynical about that. Well, today I’m reviewing such a great book. Seriously, I love this book so much when I first read it. And I’m, I’ve been so excited to share it with you. And I really think it is the perfect book for right now.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:13
So let’s dig in and find out about this book. Okay, so the book is called the upside of stress, why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, PhD. So she’s a psychologist. And I love that subtitle, Why Stress is Good for you and How to Get Good At It. So let’s focus on how to get good at stress. Because here’s the thing, we’ve all got a ton of stress right now. So you might as well get good at it, you know, and I’ve always been a high achiever. So I’m just reframing it. And I’m just going to get really good at stress these days.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:52
So this book was first published in 2016. So it’s, it’s pretty recent. And this is based on some really groundbreaking research. And like I said, McGonigal is a psychologist, and an award winning teacher. And she really offers surprising and a new view of stress, one that reveals the upside of stress. And it shows us exactly how to capitalize on its benefits. And so she shares a lot of the research that’s been done on stress. And it’s really, it’s a very fun read. I really enjoyed it. And you can also listen to it, she reads it and it’s a great listen. So that’s another way to digest this great book.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:40
So let’s hear what others are saying about it. Of course, you know, I love Daniel Pink, who’s one of my favorite authors in leadership. This is what he had to say so, “in this smart practical book, Kelly McGonigal shows that stress isn’t nearly as bad as its reputation. In fact, if we change our mindsets just a bit, we can transform stress from a barrier that thwarts to a resource that propels us. The upside of stress is a perfect how-to guide for anyone who wants to tap into the biology of courage, and the psychology of thriving under pressure.” And I really, really liked that review, because it I think it’s a really nice summary of what McGonigal does, in this book, she really goes to first of all the science of the stress research and really taps into the biology of what stress does in our body. And but not only the biology, but how our psychology right, so our thinking about stress actually impacts our biology. And that was really what was most fascinating to me, and I think unfortunately, so here I’m going to call out psychologists And on a psychologist, so I’m actually trying to do my part to right the wrongs of psychologists, I think psychologists have kind of done us a disservice. Because we have been, we have been a part of the problem in terms of peddling all the dangers of stress. And I mean, I think it’s certainly been well intentioned, I don’t think there’s been anything ill intentioned about it. But I don’t think we have done a good job of sharing the whole story. And I think that’s in part because we haven’t really had access, or have not availed ourselves of all the research, kind of highlighting the full story of stress. And I think that’s what McGonigal does so well with this book is she really lays out the research, and really tells the full story of stress. And so she does a great job. And so here I am, I’m going to try and right some wrongs, in terms of, you know, the full story of stress. And I think, like I said, I think she does a great job.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:10
So here is what Charles Duhigg, who of course, he is, the author of the best selling the Power of Habit, had to say, “a fascinating tour of cutting edge research on how stress affects us in ways, both good and bad, that we never suspect. McGonigal brings scientific studies to life that makes her lessons tangible and provides fascinating takeaways for anyone who experiences stress, which let’s face it, is all of us, often all the time.” And you know, considering where we’re at now, everyone’s kind of marinating in stress at this point. And then, let’s see one more review from Adam Grant, who he’s also one of my favorites. He’s the Wharton professor, author of Give and Take. He’s also the author of Originals. He’s one of my favorites. So, “a courageous, counterintuitive and convincing case for a big idea. Stress can be good for you. This enchanting, evidence based book has already transformed how I think about stress and I recommend it highly to anyone who lives in the 21st century.” So there you go. Awesome.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:20
Okay, so let’s learn a little bit more about the author. So Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and the author of the international bestseller, The Willpower Instinct, and The Joy of Movement. So I first came across McGonigal when I read her book, The Willpower Instinct, and it’s really good, I highly recommend it. It’s also based on extensive research, and I found it really enjoyable. And then her newest book, The Joy of Movement, it’s sitting right here on my desk, and I’m really looking forward to reading it, it just barely came out. So I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. But I’m really excited to read it, especially because in my clinical life, I’m an exercise specialist. And so I’m really excited to read that book as well. So, “as a leader in the field of science help,” quote unquote, that’s that’s all in quotes, “McGonigal is passionate about translating cutting edge research, from psychology, neuroscience and medicine into practical strategies for health, happiness, and personal success.” And one of the things and she talks about this a lot in the book is she has taught one of the most popular classes at Stanford University, on the science of stress. And it’s like been super, super popular.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:43
So she’s taught a wide range of programs at Stanford University. One of the popular ones has been the science of willpower, which I’m sure the first book was based on, and then also how to think like a psychologist. That would be fun, I’d like I’d probably enjoy that one. And she’s also received Stanford’s highest teaching honor for her undergraduate psychology teaching. So through her work with the Stanford Center for compassion and altruism, research and education, she studies methods for training mindfulness, empathy, and compassion. And of course, her research has appeared in several journals. So not only does she do a ton of teaching, and you know, popular writing, but she also does research and so some of her research is also highlighted in this book. So the other recommendation that I would make to you and I link to a couple of these videos in the show notes, but she has a great TED talk, titled How to Make Stress your Friend and so if you would like a nice introduction to her, and to her work, that Ted Talk would be a great place to start and so I will link to that. And then she has a little bit of a longer video. I think it’s about 20 minutes. And it’s entitled How to Turn Stress Into an Advantage. And that’s, like I said, a YouTube video. So there’s a nice little introduction to Dr. Kelly McGonigal.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:33
So McGonigal really opens the book by trying to debunk some of the myths or the beliefs around stress, you know that it? You know, you hear all the time that stress causes heart disease, insomnia, that it’s bad, bad, bad for you. But her This is her question, what if changing how you think about stress could make you happier, healthier, and better able to reach your goals? So you know, combining exciting new research on resilience and mindset. And I would say if there is a word of the month, it is resilience. That’s something I’m thinking about all the time, especially in this post COVID world resilience, resilience, resilience. But combining the research on resilience and mindset, McGonigal really shows that undergoing stress is not bad for you. But it’s undergoing stress, while believing that stress is bad for you, that makes it harmful. So did you hear that distinction? That’s a really, really important distinction. And that’s really the linchpin of this book. And it’s really the linchpin that makes the difference in the research. So I’m going to repeat that one more time. So undergoing stress is not bad for you. But undergoing stress, while believing that stress is bad for you, is what makes stress harmful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:53
Okay, so that’s what we’re going to be talking about. So in fact, stress actually has many, many benefits, it can give us greater focus and energy. And it can also strengthen our personal relationships. So you know, if there is a subplot here, when we talk about stress, it is that our mindset, or our beliefs about stress really, really, really matter. So what we believe about stress makes all the difference. That’s really the hinge point, that’s really the linchpin there. So McGonigal shows shows us how to cultivate a mindset that embraces stress. And that can activate the brain’s natural ability to learn from challenging experiences. So of course, the book is really practical, but it’s also life changing. So it’s not a guide to getting rid of stress. And I think that’s what’s really important to pay attention to, because most books that you would pick up or you would order, right, who are we kidding, we’re just ordering them online these days. But most books you would order or get on stress, are all about banishing stress from your life. And first of all, they’re dead in the water from go. Because it’s not possible. There’s no way to get rid of stress from your life. It just it doesn’t work that way, like it’s just part of life. But this book is, it doesn’t even pretend to do that. In fact, it like, she doesn’t want you to get rid of stress. Because she’s saying and the research shows that maybe you should learn to get better at stress. And maybe there are specific ways that getting better at stress can actually be good for you and good for your health. So by understanding, accepting, and leveraging stress, it can help you and it can become an advantage to you. That is a revolutionary thought. And I love it. It’s so awesome.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:07
Okay, so there are two main parts to the book. So Part one is all about rethinking stress, really, really helping you to challenge your thought, and includes how to change your mind about stress beyond fight or flight. And this idea that a meaningful life is a stressful life. I love that. I love that. We’ll talk a little bit more about that. And then Part two is really focused on helping you to transform stress. So you know, looking at this idea of what does it mean to be good at stress? And then she talks about three components to that. So engaging, and looking at how anxiety helps you which you know, we got a lot of anxiety right now. So it would be good to think about how that can help you and then connecting. So how caring creates resilience, right? And there’s our word of the month the resilience and then grow, and how adversity can make you stronger. And of course, we’re all dealing with a lot of adversity right now. And so that’s obviously a really good one. If you’re, if you’re walking through hell keep walking, which is a quote, that’s not a direct quote. But from Winston Churchill, he said, “if you’re going through hell keep going.” Because I mean, what choice do you have? And so we’re going through adversity, we might as well get the benefits from that, we might as well grow, we might as well become stronger if we are going through adversity. So. And that’s just, I guess that’s just my practical side.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:38
So let’s think about how this book can strengthen, love and work. And that’s really what we are concerned about when we are looking at book reviews. So this is the question that McGonigal opens the book with and so I want you to, to think about, think about this question for yourself. And it really is your belief about stress. So if you had to sum up how you feel about stress, which statement would be more accurate. So I’m going to give you two statements. And I just want you to think for yourself, which one is more accurate. So A: stress is harmful, and should be avoided, reduced and managed, or B: stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilized and embraced? Okay. So you know, I think for most of us, most of us probably would answer a, which is stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced and manage. And that’s really been the traditional view, that’s been the view of psychologists. Right. That’s where I think psychologists maybe have done us a disservice. But, and you know, McGonigal even says, you know, five years before writing the book, she would have been all over answer a, but that this is, this is the challenge that she has in the book that the research does not support that. And, you know, our beliefs about stress, really make a difference about how stress impacts you, and impacts us, and whether it has a harmful or helpful impact on us.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:28
So I want to talk a little bit, I want to start this by talking about the biology of stress. So you know, traditionally, when we’ve learned about stress, we’ve learned that, you know, it’s bad and you need to avoid it. And, you know, again, it’s not very practical, because we all have stress. And with COVID. You know, there’s no way to avoid it. But the biology of stress is also much more nuanced than what we have been taught. So there are actually three pretty common stress responses that include three very different biological profiles that motivate different strategies for coping with stress. So I want to talk about the three common stress responses because those three different stress responses actually make a really big difference in terms of coping. So the first one, which is the one most of us are so familiar with, and usually when we think about stress, this is the only response that we actually typically consider. And that is the fight or flight once in a while, you’ll think about fight, flight or freeze. But this is the one we always hear about this is the stress response that leads you to fight or flee in the face of stress. And you know, this biological response often leads to a huge adrenaline surge. So when survival is on the line, these biological changes really come on very strong.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:06
But there are two other really common stress responses. The next one is called the challenge response. And this is a response that increases self confidence, motivates action, and helps you learn from an experience. So Isn’t that cool? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one. But, you’ve probably experienced it, that’s the thing you maybe you haven’t heard of it, but you’ve probably experienced it. So when the stressful situation is less threatening, so right like death is not on the line. The brain and body shift into the challenge response state, which gives you energy and helps you perform under pressure. So your heart rate still rises, your adrenaline still spikes, and your muscles and brain get more fuel and feel-good chemicals still surge, but you feel more focused without the fear that you necessarily do with the fight or flight. And there’s a different ratio of the stress hormones, including higher levels of DhgA. So I’m not going to get into a lot of the details of the hormones, but just know that there’s a, there’s a different ratio of the stress hormones. And so this, the higher levels of the DhgA actually like that shift in the ratio is what makes the difference in how, how stress impacts your biology. So meaning whether it is protective of your biology or destructive, okay, so that’s, that’s the key to kind of understand. And of course, she explains this in greater detail in the book. So what that means is that with the challenge response, this helps you recover and learn from the stress, which is so cool. So people with the challenge response, they report these experiences of flow, right?
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:08
So most of us are pretty familiar with experiences of flow. So these are those highly enjoyable states of complete absorption in a challenging task. These people are experiencing the challenge response. Right. So the thing is, they’re not physiologically calm under pressure, right? There’s actually a really strong challenge response happening. So the mistake is that they’re really calm that there’s a challenge response happening. Also, what’s happening is there’s an increase in confidence, there’s enhanced concentration, and there’s peak performance. So all of those things are happening with the challenge response. But the really cool thing is, there’s not the increase in fear. Right. And so that’s a really important mediator, which, you know, obviously makes the challenge response, more enjoyable than fight or flight response.
Dr. Melissa Smith 22:16
Okay, so that’s the second common stress response. And then the third one, and maybe you’ve heard about this, you’ve certainly experienced this one is tend and befriend response. I’ve talked a little bit about this on, I think, on some of my ig, stories, but this is when we experience increases in courage. And it also motivates caregiving and strengthen social relationships. So tons of us have experienced a big increase in tendon befriend response, in response to COVID, I certainly have felt that stress motivates you to connect with others. And this is driven primarily by the hormone oxytocin, right. So oxytocin is known as the love or the cuddle hormone, because it is released from the pituitary gland. When you hug someone, it’s also released when you have sex. It’s also released when a mother breastfeeds her baby, but it also works when you hug yourself. So we it’s also released when we hug ourselves. So right with social distancing, if you can’t hug someone else, you could hug yourself and you could still release oxytocin, which I think is brilliant. That’s so awesome. But this is a really complex neuro hormone that fine tunes your brains social instincts. So its primary function is to build and strengthen social bonds. So like I said, it’s released with hugging during sex and with breastfeeding, and elevated levels of oxytocin. Make you want to connect with others.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:56
And think about this. What happened for you, when the world shut down? With COVID? Right? When it’s like, Okay, you got to stay home. You got to work from home, you got to do home schooling, you know, you can’t eat right, like, you got to stay away from people. Did you notice a desire to connect with others? I mean, I did. I felt such a strong urge to be with other people. And in fact, like I had to stop myself from like, stopping in at my friend’s house on my walk cuz I’m like, No, like, I got his social I got to socially distance and I am one like, I hate talking on the phone. I’m not big on texting. I’m not big on like Marco Polo, that sort of thing. Like, like I do it and I like I do connect that way. But I found myself in the first days of the quarantine of like, really feeling such a strong need and desire to connect with friends and family via those sorts of apps because I just felt that need to connect. And I wrote, like, I really wanted to visit my sister in law and everything. And I’m like, No, like, I can’t go up there. And I need to, you know, like, I need to, like, stay away. And so, you know, I set up some marcopolo groups, and I, I’ve been texting and connecting with people that way. But what I noticed is that was the tend and befriend response operating in me. And maybe you have noticed that in yourself, and that is a very common stress response. And so, you know, we want to, we want to have awareness of that, and go with it, because that is, that’s a really appropriate and healthy way to cope with stress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 25:53
So it makes your brain better able to notice and understand what other people are thinking and feeling. And this is the cool thing, it enhances empathy and intuition. So if you have high levels of oxytocin, you’re more likely to trust and help those you care about. And so by making the brain’s reward centers, more responsive, responsive to social connection, oxytocin amplifies the happiness you get from caring for others. So Isn’t that cool? I love that. So oxytocin is also known as the chemical for courage, because it dampens the fear response. And it suppresses the instinct to freeze or flee. So the tend and befriend response, right, or oxytocin actually suppresses the instinct to flee, or to freeze, which I think is really, that’s really powerful. So oxytocin is released as part of the stress response, encouraging you to connect with your support network. So exactly what I was talking about that was happening with me, you’ve probably noticed that with yourself. So you know, you really, it pushes you to strengthen your most important relationships by making you more responsive to others. This tend and befriend response motivates you to protect the people and the communities you care about. And it gives you the courage to do so.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:28
So this, we can think about this as the mama bear phenomenon. Right. So it also helps you to move into a protective mode. So and it’s really about protecting those you care about. So it’s not necessarily self protective, but protective of those you care about, and gives you the courage to stand up for others. So when you’re stressed and want to talk to a friend, that’s oxytocin, when disaster strikes, and you want to ensure your family is safe from harm, that’s tended the friend when there’s an injustice, and you want to defend your community, that is all part of this stress response. So the other cool thing about the tend and befriend response is that it’s also good for your cardiovascular health. So again, I want to challenge this idea that all stress is bad, because this tend and befriend response is actually really protective of cardiovascular health. So the heart has special receptors for oxytocin specifically. And so, this helps harder cells regenerate and repair from micro damage. So oxytocin actually helps to repair the heart. Isn’t that remarkable? I love that. It’s super cool. So we’re definitely seeing so much of the tend and befriend response with the COVID pandemic. So we want to reach out we want to check on people. And it’s beautiful. It’s It’s so beautiful, and it’s really functional. And that, like, we are wired as humans to respond that way. And we see, for the most part, we see the best of us coming out. And we are, we are wired to respond in these ways. And it’s awesome. I love it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 29:22
Okay, so those are the three common stress responses. And then the last, the last component is recovery from the stress response. And that is really when the body returns to baseline after the stress response. And so I’ll talk about that a little bit at the end, because of course, that’s also a really important component in there. But now I want to talk a little bit about purpose and meaning and how that relates to stress because they are absolutely linked. So You know, I want you to, I want you to answer these questions for yourself as you listen to them. So do you have a sense of purpose? You know, in your life? Do you find meaning? In your work? Do you find meaning in your family relationships? And do you retain hope. So stress is not necessarily a bad thing. So you know, your mindset about your life. And your work really makes all the difference in determining if you’re on a path to burnout, or on a path to resilience. And so I want to talk a little bit about what makes the difference right, so you’re at a crossroad? Are you on the path to burnout? Or are you on a path to resilience, and this is where we really want to think about shifting your relationship to stress. And the key is finding meaning in your work finding purpose in the work you do. So if you’ve lost meaning, in your work in your life, in your relationships, I can guarantee you, you’re on the path to burnout. Because this is what we know from the research. Stress equals meaning.
Dr. Melissa Smith 31:25
Okay, so when we experience stress, for most of us, our reaction is I just wish I had less stress. Right? I mean, how many of us have said that I just want less stress, I just wish I were less stressed. But what happens is less stress equals less meaning. And less meaning equals less purpose. And that actually becomes a recipe for depression. And I don’t know about you, but when I have done that in my life, like I’ve had times in my life where I was like, oh, like, I’m too stressed, like, I need to move down to, for example, part time work, because this stress is just way too much. And then I worked, then I moved down to part time work. And I was so miserable. And part of why I was so miserable is because I lost my connection to meaning I lost my connection to a higher purpose. Because at that point, it was just like, it was just kind of this side stuff. And I did not feel connected to a higher purpose and higher meaning. And so it felt very depressing. And I felt a sense of disconnection. And so you know, the correlate to that, that we also see, and she talks about this in the book is this idea around, being busy. So how many of us have said, I just want to be less busy, I just want to be less busy. But what happens is when people become less busy, so they get their wish, right? They’re less busy. They also experience less meaning, and loss of hope, and often more depression. And so the point that she makes, and what the research really lays out very nicely is that a stressful life is an indicator of a meaningful life. And when we can shift our understanding of that, you know, it’s this idea that when you notice that you are stressed about something or that you’re worried about something, take it as a sign that you deeply care about whatever it is you’re worried about. And perhaps, you know, it’s an opportunity for you to cope more effectively. Right, that may still be true. But isn’t it wonderful, that you have things in your life that you deeply care about? That’s remarkable.
Dr. Melissa Smith 34:18
So we really want to keep stress in perspective, that stress is an indication that you are living a meaningful life. And so, you know, I spent years of my life saying, and this was not very long ago, like, I just want to get to a point where I have less stress, I just want to get to a point where I’m less busy. And I stopped doing that a few years ago because this is what I recognize is that as long as I am pursuing what matters to me, right, which is purpose driven work. I’m always going to have a level of stress, because the work matters very deeply to me. And because of that, like, I’m always going to be busy, because I feel very driven to do that work. And so I’m going to stop wishing to be less busy. And instead I’m going to focus on self care, I’m going to focus on what can I do to cope effectively? Because, right, like there’s coping effectively, and there’s coping ineffectively, but I’m not going to wish away a meaningful life. Because I’ve worked really hard to create that. And so when you see stress in your life, is it connected to meaning? Is it connected to values? Is it connected to purpose? And if so, that’s awesome. And then you can take a look at coping, okay, like, am I coping? Wow. And does that need some attention? Right.
Dr. Melissa Smith 36:03
So this is where the leadership, survival silk gills workshop might be helpful for you because you could maybe your skills could use some attention there. That’s that’s often true for many of us. But let’s, let’s look again, at the stress state on the body and the mind. So I want to talk a little bit more about that biology of stress. So we know that adrenaline sharpens the senses, pupils dilate, to let in more light. Our hearing sharpens the brain processes what you perceive more quickly. mind wandering stops, right? Like you can focus your attention, less important priorities drop away, there’s a state of concentrated attention, which provides greater access to more information about your physical environment. There’s a motivation boost from the cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone, and dope and dopamine. So this is one of the reasons that some people really enjoy stress, it can really be a rush.
Dr. Melissa Smith 37:12
So this is known as the excite and delight side of stress. And some of what goes along with this excite and delight side of stress include that increased sense of confidence and power, more willingness to pursue your goals, and to approach whatever is triggering you. And so, again, right? When we think about the biology of stress, it’s not all bad, right? Like it can really sharpen your focus, it can really help you get things done, it can really give you laser, focus on your priorities. And so it is not necessarily a bad thing. But we want to keep that in balance.
Dr. Melissa Smith 38:02
And so when we think about stress, and meaning, we really want you to live to your values and think about, you know, living to your values, it’s what makes you good at your work, and probably is what brought you to your work in the first place. So if you find yourself losing meaning, or getting burned out in your work, you want to start looking at a few things. So have you lost sight of your purpose, or your why, right? Like, why am I doing this work? I can’t, I can’t feel connected to it. And if if it could be helpful, maybe go back to my my very first podcast, which is pursue what matters, where I kind of help you break down that process and help you connect to your why that could be really helpful. So asking yourself, why, why are you doing this work. And you’ve got to remember why you do it, what you do, and why it all matters. And you can do that for any important role in your life. So whether it is at work, whether it is at home, whether it’s a volunteer position, so you know, do it for whatever role you are feeling disconnected in. And of course, that sense of purpose is incredibly important.
Dr. Melissa Smith 39:20
So, right, you want to look at whether you’ve lost sight of your purpose, whether you’ve lost sight of your values, because if you’ve lost sight of your values, maybe you run the risk of becoming cynical. You’ve become disconnected from your values, or you can’t see the connecting link between what you do every single day and your values. And so you it’s really important to make this connecting link more clear. Bernie brown talks about this as far as moving from bs to behavior and really having a connecting link between your values and your Daily behavior.
Dr. Melissa Smith 40:01
So now let’s focus on how we can transform stress. And one of the most important ways that we do that is through our recovery from the stress response. So if you recall, I talked about three common stress responses, right? So fight or flight is the first one. The second is the challenge response. And the third one is the tendon befriend response, well, then we have the recovery from the stress response, okay, and this happens as the last stage of the stress response. And this is recovery. And it’s when your brain and body returned to a non stressed state. And this stage is really, really important. And unfortunately, some people don’t ever have that recovery component of the stress response cycle. And that’s a problem. So let’s talk a little bit about the recovery phase. So with cortisol and oxytocin, they reduce inflammation, and restore balance to the autonomic nervous system. And then DHEA. So you remember, this is the one that I talked about where the ratio shift makes a difference in terms of whether it’s destructive or protective of your biology. So DHEA and nerve growth factor, increase neuroplasticity, so that your brain can learn from stressful experiences.
Dr. Melissa Smith 41:31
Okay, that is so cool. So neuroplasticity is really just, it’s a it’s a neuroscience term, which basically means how flexible is your brain, in, in new learning, right? So think about it in terms of, you know, can your can your brain, learn new material, and so this da, GA, and nerve growth factor, helps to increase your brain’s ability to learn from stressful experiences. So that’s one of the things that happens during the recap the recovery phase of the stress response cycle. So really, really important thing that’s happening during that recovery phase. So if you release higher levels of those hormones, during a stressful experience, you will bounce back faster, with less lingering distress, because you’re integrating the learning from that stressful experience. Right. So this is where we think about post traumatic growth. This is where we think about resilience. Right, where you can integrate learning, and really move forward. And that, gosh, it’s so remarkable. So for several hours, after a strong stress response, the brain is actually rewiring itself to remember and learn from the experience. So that’s what I mean, when I say the neuroplasticity, the brain is rewiring itself, to remember and learn from the stressful experience.
Dr. Melissa Smith 43:09
So the stress hormones increase activity in the brain regions that support learning and memory. And so as your brain is processing the experience, you might be unable to stop thinking about what happened, right? Because there’s an increase in brain activity, right? Because your brain is working to integrate that material. So you might feel a really strong desire to talk with someone about what’s going on. That’s part of what we see with the tend and befriend response. So you might feel a strong desire to pray about it. If things went well, you might replay the experience in your mind, remembering everything you did, and how it worked out. If things went poorly, you might try to understand what happened. Imagine what you could have done differently and play out other possible outcomes. Right?
Dr. Melissa Smith 44:05
So think about this. Think about this with kids. Think about this with yourself. This is the time to let yourself process what happened. What I mean by process is, let yourself think about it. Let yourself talk about it. Let yourself write about it. The worst thing you could do with a little kiddo is to say, we’re not talking about it. There’s nothing to talk about. There’s nothing that happened, get over it. Right? Because what you do is you shut down, you shut down their rewiring, you’ve shut down their ability to learn and integrate their difficult experience. And that’s the last thing we want to happen. That’s the last thing we want to happen for you to write. That’s the last thing we want to happen for your teams. So in response to difficult situations, right? Whether it’s a one time event, or whether it’s an ongoing crisis, right, such as COVID, you want built in opportunities to process and to talk about and to reflect on and to learn from what you are experiencing. It’s one of the reasons I’m talking a lot about COVID. Right? It’s not because I don’t have anything else to talk about. It’s because these are opportunities we have to integrate, and learn from and processes information, so that we can build resilience so that we can have post traumatic growth, so that we can thrive in the face of uncertainty and come out stronger on the other side. But we have to be intentional about that. It doesn’t just happen, right. And especially if we come from a background, where we were taught not to talk about it, especially if we have shame, or judgment around emotions, or around vulnerability, which you know, a lot of us do, then we will not give ourselves permission to talk about these things. And we’ve got to write because we are all going through a collective loss here. And so you’ve got to give yourself and others permission to process what is happening.
Dr. Melissa Smith 46:25
Okay, so journaling talking expression, right art, it doesn’t have, it doesn’t have to be verbal, it doesn’t have to be verbal. Okay, emotions run high during the recovery process. So you might, you might feel too energized or agitated to calm down, you might feel shock, fear, anger, guilt, sadness, you might feel relief, joy, gratitude, right? Like, your emotions might be all over the place. And that’s kind of been true for a lot of us. These emotions often coexist during the recovery period, and are how the brain attempts to integrate the experience. So it’s okay that your emotions are all over the place.
Dr. Melissa Smith 47:09
So my younger sister, she, one of her responses to difficult things is she laughs uncontrollably, okay, and she has been laughing a lot. And like, she knows this about herself. And like, we’ll be in a texting thread. And she’s just like, Oh my gosh, like, I can’t stop laughing. And out here in the West. In addition to the COVID. Business, we’ve had, we’ve had two major earthquakes since COVID happened. And it’s like, oh, my gosh, like, what else is gonna happen and like, I’m scared to even ask that I feel like I need to knock on wood. But in Salt Lake, we had, you know, less than a week after the COVID shut down, we had 5.7, I think 5.7 earthquake in Salt Lake, which was big and really scary in a very populated area. And then, just a few weeks after that, there was a 6.5 earthquake in Idaho. And I didn’t feel it in Utah, but my sister lived much closer to it. And she definitely felt it. And my parents felt it. My mother sent me a video of all of her pots and pans shaking. And my sister’s response was, she could not stop laughing. And so like, right, like, that doesn’t necessarily make any sense.
Dr. Melissa Smith 48:40
But the point is, that our emotions are all over the place. And so this is not the time to judge your emotions or to shut them down or to say, I can’t believe you’re laughing right now. Right? It’s just like, let it be. Let it be. And you know, my friend sent me to actually send this to a group text of several of our colleagues, great group text about how a mother, like it was basically like a mother’s mood throughout COVID. And like, one minute, she’s like, we’re gonna seize the day, this is going to be so awesome. And in the next video, she’s just like, I’m not getting out of bed today. There’s nothing you can do. And then the next video, she’s like, get up, we’re gonna stick to a schedule, this is going to be great. And then the next clip, she’s like, offering her children ice cream for breakfast. And so it’s very funny. I’ll try and link to it in the show notes. But basically, this idea that all of these emotions are all over the place. And all of the emotions often coexist during this recovery period. And it’s really how the brain is trying to attend. I say attempt to integrate the experience and we just need to embrace the end. We just need to embrace all of it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 50:03
So we want to, you know, all of these emotions really encourage you to reflect on what happened, and to learn the lessons to help you to cope with future stress. So you don’t need to put it all in a neat box. It’s just like, yeah, like this to this to like, it’s just a lot. And also, right, like, it helps to make that experience more memorable. It’s like, Whoa, what is going on here. So the neuro chemistry, these emotions really render the brain more plastic.
Dr. Melissa Smith 50:33
So when you hear plastic and the brain, it, I want you to think about flexibility, I want you to think about learning. So these emotions help the brain to become more plastic, so that the emotions following the stress help you learn from the experience and create meaning. So that’s what happens with these emotions. So that’s great, that’s actually a really, really great thing for you. And so this is all how past stress teaches the brain and the body, how to handle future stress. So that in the future, as you come up against a big stressor, your brain, and your body can say, ah, I’ve been here before I can handle this, I can integrate this, I don’t need to lose my shizzle I can do this. So this is known as stress inoculation. And it really helps you to thrive in highly stressful environments. And so the findings include that, you know, for example, early life stresses can lead to resilience later in life. And so this is really where we think about post traumatic growth, and resilience. And so the message is this, going through stress can make you better at it. And it can, it can make stress easier to face. Because your mindset, your mindset shifts, because you recognize that those stresses don’t necessarily become easier, you become stronger. So expecting to learn from stress shifts your physical stress response to support stress inoculation, because, you know, like, okay, like, I can do this, and your brain has been rewired to be able to integrate and, and do it and your biology supports that as well. So more likely that you will have a, it makes it more likely that you’ll have a challenge response, instead of a fight or flight response, which in turn increases the likelihood that you will learn as a result of the stressor, and become better at stress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 52:40
So that’s what’s so powerful about understanding this research. And understanding how the mindset shift can make all of the difference for you. So really, really powerful information there. From this book, and I just, I just think it can really change the way that we approach ourselves, approach our work approach our loved ones. And so we want to make room for all of it. So the last word that I would say on this is that, you know, in times of stress, sometimes the tendency is to push away from from others or from helping others because we, we kind of feel like others emotions might be too much that or that they might be overwhelming. But the exact opposite actually is true. When we avoid connection, our own feelings of powerlessness increase. And that, you know, that in turn increases our stress. And the pattern of emotional avoidance increases. And so of course, this leads to burnout. But when we move toward one another, which is that tendon befriend response, we actually experience an increase in hope and optimism in power and effectiveness, and a decrease in stress. And, of course, an increase in courage, which is as a function of oxytocin. And what happens with that is we break that stress cycle, right like that, an effective stress cycle. And we lay the foundation for resilience both in ourselves, and in others. And of course, this is this is known as altruism. And it’s so how it’s termed in the research is altruism as a result of suffering.
Dr. Melissa Smith 54:35
But it’s one of the ways that we can show up for others in difficulty, and it really lays the foundation for long term resilience and so I really would highly recommend this book. It’s so powerful, and if you don’t feel up to reading the book, definitely check out her TED talk or her YouTube video. I will link to those and head on over to my website to check out the show notes with all the great resources for this episode, and the link for this book. That’s at www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-52. At the website with the shownotes, I will have a link to my leadership survival skills. Those are some of those basic, really key skills to help you have a strong foundation so that you can cope effectively with stress rather than just trying to banish it. And then I will also link to some of the recent episodes on leading through crisis, eight ways to thrive in uncertain times. And then also kind of the new normal, navigating leadership. And then of course, I’ll link to the book and to the TED Talk. So again, www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-52. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai