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Making Stress Your Friend

Posted By PattiAnn On January 12, 2012 @ 12:01 am In general | Comments Disabled

I can show you where the greatest advancement of mankind comes under stress and strain, not comfort.

— Don Young

One of my favorite whines has to do with how I look.  Yes, I’m getting older and I’m showing my age (where I can’t help it), but that’s not what I’m referring to.

My problem is I’m showing my stress.  For all of us who are carrying a little, or a lot, of weight around the middle, there’s good and bad news attached.  The good news is that the weight that you’re carrying is less about a lack of discipline or an unwillingness to give up cake/chips/muffins/buttered popcorn, etc. than it is about the amount of stress in your life.  The bad news is that if you’re really going to lose that spare tire, managing your stress is a key component to achieving that goal.

Walking in Circles

You might say that stress is a circular problem.  We’ve been told for so long that stress is bad for us that we get stressed about being stressed.  You think I’m kidding?  No way!  Part of us bemoans the stress we feel because we’ve been told that stress is bad for us.  Unmanaged stress may be less than optimal, but current research shows that if we use what God and nature have given us, stress is part of the overall system design.

In Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain [1], John Ratey pulls together what we know from the research about how our bodies and our brains have evolved to handle the world in which we live – sort of.

According to Ratey, our bodies are doing what millions of years have taught them to do to: keep us alive.  Many millions of years ago, we were hunter/gatherers.  This involved walking 10-12 miles a day.  We seldom sat still because sitting still was an invitation to lunch for some predator.  If we sat still long enough, we didn’t need to worry as much about predators because we were starving and didn’t make very good eating.

Part of the process of walking, hunting, and gathering was learning.  As our ancestors walked, they figured out how to get big animals to run away from them and over a cliff so they could cut them up and eat for several days.  They learned the various plants that were good to eat or good for healing.  These skills were passed on to the next generation as they walked, and over the many millions of years, learning got linked to physical activity in our brains.  They were active and they learned on the run, literally.

Build Your Stress Muscle

Our reaction to stress developed over those same millions of years.  When the bear or lion or wolf appeared, our bodies always reacted in the same ways:

  • Shut down all non-essential activities
  • Prepare the muscles to react
  • Store as much brain food as possible to handle the emergency (this is where the spare tire comes from)

The reason we build spare tires is that while our ancestors stored up brain food for emergencies, they also moved so much that they didn’t keep much of that emergency store.  At the end of the day, they slept.  This helped to rebuild their bodies and their minds after a hectic day.

Most of us don’t get the opportunity to move in response to stress.  We may have to sit for hours to meet the deadline that is causing us the stress.  Our body still reacts as it did in the “good ol’ days,” it shuts down non-essential activities, tightens our muscles so they are ready to react, and stores up food.  None of this really helps us meet the deadline, but it does make us feel stiff and adds to our stores of emergency food (the spare tire).

The more stressed we feel, the more many of us turn to eating and drinking for comfort, vegging in front of the TV, and staying up late and missing out on sleep.  Unfortunately, these activities don’t really help us recover and our stress level increases.

As Ratey explains it, we are actually designed to increase our stress tolerance.  Increasing our ability to deal with stress is like any other fitness activity.  When we are becoming more fit, we stretch ourselves.  We walk faster and/or farther.  We build strength by repeatedly lifting a particular weight until lifting that weight is easy.  Then we lift a heavier weight.  In other words, we stress our muscles so they can grow.

Mental stress works the same way, though we don’t usually choose the mental stressor.  A rumor of layoffs at work creates stress.  The key is how we react to that stress.  If we get moving, we reduce the level of stress hormones in our system.  The system calls off the alert and goes back to functioning normally.  The more we use this response to manage our stress, the less minor stressors affect us.

Just like you, I am stressed off and on all day.  So, I’m starting to make a practice of walking to the furthest restroom on the floor.  I’ll take the stairs when I need to go up or down to the next floor.  When I’m stumped by a problem, I’ll walk away.  Not for hours, just to clear my head.  When I’ve done this occasionally in the past, it’s amazing how often I come back and the solution is a little bit clearer.  As we train our body how to react, over time our “stress muscle” gets stronger. The better we become at managing our stress, the more we can handle.

How does this relate to my journey to become a happier person?  First, as I said at the beginning of this post, my spare tire has expanded over the past few years.  Now that I understand how stress works, I realize that more movement and more sleep help my body to handle stress in healthier ways.

I also now know that whining about how much stress I have is based on a false premise.  Each of us is able to handle stress, probably more than we realize.  The real stressor is our belief that there’s nothing we can do.  We’ve learned to be helpless in the face of stress.

For the longest time, I’ve felt helpless about my spare tire(s).  Changing my eating habits doesn’t really seem to have much effect.  Now I know that part of my problem is that I haven’t been handling the stress in my life as effectively as I could.  If I want to feel and look better, I need to accept that while stress is inevitable, it’s my response which determines the effect stress has on my body and spirit.

It would seem that my path to a happier, less whiney me, is somewhat circuitous.  But that’s OK because each thing I discover brings me closer to where I want to be.  They’re all little steps, but every step counts!!


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