Do you ever feel like the universe is sending you a postcard? When I came home last night, the title of this post was scrawled in chalk on the ramp to my dock.
Reading Time: Under 2 minutes
After the crisis-ridden day I’d had, I was happy to see those words. As I stood there and let those words sink in deep, I thought about the difference between someone who learns to sail on the San Francisco Bay – a notoriously wild and windy place – and someone who learns on the Long Island Sound with its placid, protected waters. I know which Captain I want in charge of my boat.
Which got me thinking about resilience and the recent, compelling research about stress. It’s not stress that harms you, it’s the belief that stress is harmful that harms you. Believing stress is harmful is the 15th leading cause of death.
The physiology is straightforward: Stress makes your heart pound. Believing stress is harmful constricts your blood vessels, which increases your risk of death. But when you see the stress as helpful, your blood vessels open. Increased blood flow in open veins is physically identical to states of exhilaration, courage and joy. See stress as helpful and your body throws itself a little party right in the middle of the onslaught, rendering stress harmless.
But the news is even better than that: Stress causes you to connect with others – it practically drives you into their arms. You need help, advice, support, coaching, These social connections bathe your body in oxytocin, which protects you from the effects of stress. For caregivers, the healing effect of oxytocin seems to negate the wear and tear of caring for others.
Yes, you read that correctly: Caring for others promotes a healing response in the caregiver that protects against the effects of stress.
This research means that rampant excuse for bad behavior, “I’m just really stressed out,” is about to leave the building, and good riddance to it.
Accept – Connect – Help is the formula, and the choice is yours to make. The more I sit with this research, the more I see that what I’ve been calling stressful is simply strenuous, a signal to get moving.
Stress has one more gift for us: Meaning. Stress and adversity increase the chance of a meaningful life. Seeking comfort has the opposite effect.
Which brings me to my 90-year-old Aunt Perina, a woman I’ve long admired, but not always understood. Born between the World Wars, her generation came of age in a time of great deprivation. Those early, difficult times hold her richest, most cherished memories, the ones that have sustained her through the death of all her siblings and most of her friends. I did not understand the psychic alchemy that left her kinder and richer with each blow, until I saw this research. I’m glad to get a glimmer of this this now, when I can still tell her she’s my role model for her courage, grit and unfailing sense of humor.
If you want to learn more, the book is called “The Upside of Stress,” by Kelly McGonigal. Her TED talk gives a good overview of this topic. If you don’t have 20 minutes right now, click here for my 1-page summary of that TED talk.
See you on the upside.