Rethinking Stress: Part II

John McManamy Health Guide
  • This post is a follow-up from last week’s post, Rethinking Stress, that took a counter-intuitive look at stress. We know that stress looms large in physical and mental illness, but recent studies suggest that stress is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, if we don’t perceive a certain event in our lives as stressful, then our bodies and brains tend to respond in a healthy way.


    Knowing this, we can work to improve our own resilience.


    This was the thesis put forward in a recent TED Talk by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal. So, we start with this proposition: Healthy people have a way of viewing stressful events as ordinary. 

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    This may seem puzzling, as if we can somehow magically think our way out of stress. Maybe we can better understand this by flipping it around, namely:


    People who experience mental illness tend to view ordinary events as stressful. 


    Our own personal experiences readily validate this. Five years ago, I subjected myself to a road test to get my California driver’s license. I hadn’t driven a car in 30 years. I had failed my first test (by going through a red light). Here is how I describe that second test, written the day after, in a blast from the past here on HealthCentral:


    I’ve willed my heart down to merely 300 beats a minute. Turn left, the inspector instructs. What did he mean by that? I wonder. He’s scribbling in his clipboard.

    One turn and already I’ve given him something to write about! I’m doomed!


    It was only a road test, but my brain was telling me the car was on fire and spinning out of control at 200 MPH, with Soviet judges from the 1968 Winter Olympics grading my performance. I have no doubt that my blood cortisol would have confirmed this.


    Funny thing, after the test the inspector told me I have a tendency to over-think and therefore panic. It happens to me all the time, I was tempted to respond. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to keep my mouth shut. The inspector took pity on me and passed me. I almost hugged him.


    Okay, everyone experiences stress during a road test. In fact, our bodies and brains were built for this sort of thing. This is a principle that dates back to 1908 in studies on rats conducted by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson. The right amount of stress heightens our arousal and allows us to focus on what is important. Yes, we may feel nervous, but brain function and body function are optimal.


    But only to a point. Too much stress compromises brain and body function. We lose the ability to perform the task at hand.


    So perhaps now Dr McGonigal’s thesis starts to make sense: It isn’t that certain healthy people are magically thinking their way out of stress. It is that, in most situations, they are not experiencing a sense of too-much stress to begin with. What is an obstacle course to us appears to be an invigorating walk in the park to them.


    But even healthy people have their breaking points. Suppose you must endure a job you hate, day after day, year after year. In 1967, researchers began tracking 18,000 male British civil servants over a ten-year period. A second study (begun in 1985 and still ongoing) is tracking 10,000 male and female British civil servants. The two studies are known as the Whitehall Studies.


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    The clear finding from both studies was that mortality rates are far higher for those in the lower echelons of the British civil service than the upper echelons, even after controlling for lifestyle and other factors. The prevailing interpretation is that lower level workers experience more stress on the job, which sets them up for cardiac failure and other disasters.


    One would think that those in senior management would experience a lot more stress than those lower down. But think again. Those poor sods at the bottom tend to have little or no control over their situation. They have to put up with all sorts of abuse from the top. Upper level employees, by contrast, have far more say how they go about their day. No doubt tied into this is their financial and domestic situations are a lot more secure.


    The Whitehall study has parallels to studies that Robert Sapolsky of Stanford has conducted on baboons in the wild. Baboons organize themselves very much like the British civil service, with the alphas on top making life miserable for the betas. Not surprisingly, the betas had very high blood cortisol levels, though the alphas also had to have a lot to be upset over (such as competition from other alphas).


    So, connecting the dots ...


    Our reward for being born with brains that are vulnerable to stress (or emerging from childhood traumas) is a stress-packed life as a lowly beta. Are the odds stacked against us? Yes. Are we doomed to fail? Only if we answer yes.

Published On: September 28, 2013