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It's Not the Stress, It's Your Response

If anything has earned “boogeyman” status in health & wellness circles, it’s stress. Stress has been linked to the 6 leading causes of death: heart disease, accidents, cancer, liver disease, lung ailments, and suicide. Google “avoid stress” and you’ll be able to pick from more than 148 million results. The American Institute of Stress estimates that the effects of chronic stress cost nearly $600 billion a year in the US alone. Just the stress of worrying about our stress is stressing us out!

But not all stress is equal—every human being has a natural ability to respond to different stressors in different ways. The key to being brilliant at stress, then, is understanding that your body can do more than “fight or flight”: You can consciously choose a healthier response.

What Stress Really Is

Hans Selye, who’s widely credited with discovering stress back in the 1930s, called it “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand” (the demand itself is the stressor). To date, researchers haven’t agreed upon a scientific definition for stress, but generally they say that it’s the “experience of anticipating or encountering adversity in one’s goal-related efforts.”

Selye found 3 universal responses to coping with any stressor; they’ve come to be called, most simply, the stress syndrome.

  1. Alarm: This is the threat response, “fight or flight,” where survival is at stake. This stress response has evolved to prepare your body for fast action. As Dr. Robert Sapolsky has demonstrated in his years of studying stress in primates, it’s what you need to outrun a hungry lion on the savannah—and in that situation, it’s a great tool to have! From this point, however, there are 2 paths your body can take: resist or give up.
  2. Resistance: Assuming you survive situation #1, your stress response is designed to shut down once the stressor is gone. As in athletic training, your body becomes conditioned or resistant to that stress, leaving you in better shape to execute an efficient, effective response the next time you hear a rustle in the tall grass.
  3. Exhaustion: Back on the savannah, your stress was short-lived: either you got away, or you were lunch. But if the stress response goes on and on without resolution (or any ability to control it, as demonstrated by the Whitehall study of British civil servants), the resulting “aging due to wear and tear” defeats your body’s resources, setting up conditions ripe for development of serious health consequences.

It’s the Reaction, Not the Stress

While you probably won’t face an actual lion at lunchtime, there’s no shortage of stressors in modern life. Instead of hungry predators, maybe you’re thinking about finances, relationships, housing, or family. Positive events can be stressors, too, like landing a new job or planning a big party. Add in smaller day-to-day problems—a traffic jam when you’re already late, a sudden big expense, a computer crash—and taking your chances on the savannah might not seem so scary after all.

You can’t relax away every stressor in your life…so are you just doomed? No! It’s not the stress, but your reaction to it, that makes all the difference.                                                                    

Researchers have long recognized that the human body has a bigger repertoire of response to stress than just fight or flight. Back in 1955, Dr. Albert Ellis developed an approach called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy to help people “identify, challenge, and replace their self-defeating beliefs with healthier ones that promote emotional well-being.” At Harvard, Dr. Jeremy Jamieson, et al., has shown that stress alone isn’t what’s dangerous, it’s the perception of it—“changing the way we think about our bodily responses,” he said, “can improve our physiological and cognitive reactions to stressful events” and “reappraising [stress] arousal shows physiological and cognitive benefits.”

You Don’t Want a Stress-Free Life

In her eye-opening 2013 TED Talk and her 2015 book The Upside of Stress, Dr. Kelly McGonigal focuses on several recent research studies suggesting “stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case.” Instead of letting a chronic, “always-on” stress response take a slow toll on your body and mind, she proposes, you can choose a healthier mindset (belief) for dealing with it.

McGonigal proposes that “you don’t feel stress about things that you don’t care about.” Another way to think about stress, then, is to interpret it as reflecting how much you care about things that have special meaning in your life—a stress-free life, then, would also be devoid of meaning. Who wants that? If shifting your perceptions can change stress from a killer crisis to an affirmation of what’s meaningful to you, maybe it could also be a new way to feel some control over the stressor and its effects.

You Can Choose: Threat or Challenge

Instead of trying to categorize all stress at the same level—all good (hard to believe) or all bad (hard to survive)—McGonigal sees a middle way: choosing the difference between a threat and a challenge.

  • A threat response primes your body for self-defense—the classic fight-or-flight scenario. Your body anticipates physical harm: your heart pounds to deliver more blood and energy to your muscles; at the same time, your blood vessels constrict and your blood pressure climbs. Your immune system and inflammation response mobilize cells that can help you heal more quickly. Unnecessary systems, like digestion and reproduction, shut down. This powerful redirection of resources can help in an emergency, but if your mind never lets it go—if it becomes chronic—this stress response is associated with accelerated aging, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and other serious health consequences.
  • A challenge response, on the other hand, elicits the same kind of reaction as physical exercise. Your body isn’t expecting injury, so its response focuses on delivering energy efficiently. Here, too, your heart beats harder and increases blood flow—but in this case, your blood vessels don’t constrict and your immune system doesn’t launch a fire drill. Instead of fear, your body supports a feeling of excitement and confidence.

Most important, McGonigal points out, studies have shown repeatedly that it’s not the absence of a stress response, but the presence of a challenge response that helps you perform well under pressure. Changing your perception of your stress response can help turn a dangerous physical crisis into an empowering physical resource.

Let Stress Do Its Job for You, Not on You

Stress will always be part of life. Relaxation has its place (and feels so good)—but of all the tools and strategies that can help you manage stress well, what makes the biggest difference is your mindset. Instead of seeing stress as an overwhelming enemy, you can choose to work with your body’s natural capabilities and see it as a tool for your success.

  • Allow stress do its job of self-defense—when it’s needed and only as long as it’s needed. Then once you’ve outrun the lion, let it go.
  • Look at your stress response as a built-in support mechanism that helps you rise to a challenge and perform at your highest level. When you do that, your body develops healthy resistance to the effects of stress (remember Selye’s 2nd response?) and helps you do even better next time.

Choosing a healthier stress response in line with your body’s natural capacities also makes it easier to try additional tactics when you need a little extra reinforcement—whether it’s meditation or talking to someone, getting some exercise or supplementing your diet with extra nutritional support.

The key to being brilliant at stress—that is, stress response—is knowing that it’s a powerful support tool that can help you take charge and rise to the occasion, whenever you need it. You’ve got this! (Sorry, lion.)



Stress affects everyone, but each of us has the power to shape its effects. Dig deeper into these resources for more ways to take control of your stress response and live your most meaningful life! 

Abiola Keller, et al., “Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality,” Health Psychology journal of the American Psychological Association, 2012, Vol. 31, No. 5. Accessed Mar. 7, 2017.
Albert Ellis Institute, “Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.” Accessed Mar. 9, 2017.
Alia J. Crum, et al., “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Apr. 2013. Accessed Mar. 7, 2017.
Heidi Hanna, “Redefining Stress,” The American Institute of Stress, Nov. 1, 2016. Accessed Mar. 10, 2017., “Rethinking Stress: How Changing Your Thinking Could Save Your Life,” Apr. 2015. Accessed Mar. 21, 2017.
Jeremy Jamieson, et al., “Mind Over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2012, Vol. 141, No. 3. Accessed Mar. 6, 2017.
Kelly McGonigal, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” TED Talk, June 2013. Accessed Mar. 7, 2017.
Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress, Avery/Penguin Random House, 2015.
MacLean Fitzgerald, “Hans Selye: The Discovery of Stress,” Brain Connection on, Apr. 5, 2013. Accessed Mar. 10, 2017.
Sir Michael Marmot, et al., Whitehall II (also known as the Stress and Health Study), University College, London. Accessed Mar. 6, 2017.
National Institute of Mental Health, “5 Things You Should Know About Stress,” National Institutes of Health. Accessed Mar. 22, 2017.
Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Third Edition, Holt Paperbacks, 2004.

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