Working Smarter

The Most Dangerous Thing About Stress: How Long We Hang on to It

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Too many margaritas can make you a traffic accident statistic. Too much sugar and fat, both of which are crucial to providing energetic resources for the body, can lead to obesity and a serious side effect, diabetes. Even too much water can kill you. If you notice a trend here, it’s that things that may be harmless in moderation can boomerang on us in excess. Add stress to the list.

The stress response was designed for short bursts, providing a sudden rush of power to our limbs to help us fight or run from life-or-death danger. It was intended to last a limited time, until we were out of harm’s way and imminent demise. When the saber-tooth tiger left the neighborhood, so did the stress.

KILL STRESS FAST

That was a good thing, since the longer stress lasts, the more damage it does to your body. Stress in small doses doesn’t wreak large-scale havoc on your innards and can even be considered an asset that propels you through a challenge or makes something feel exciting as you put your skills to a test.

On the other hand, stress that lasts days, weeks, and months, if not years, causes wide-scale harm to any number of systems and organs in the body and can lead to sudden trips to the ER. All stress management efforts should be focused on cutting off the most dangerous threat of stress, how long it lasts, and killing it before it kills you.

It’s the duration of stress that makes it so dangerous, since the stress response rejiggers many parts of your body in harmful ways to prepare your system for battle stations. Some functions of the body aren’t needed in a life-and-death struggle, such as the immune system, digestion and tissue repair systems, so these are turned off or suppressed to focus on the mission of providing more strength and speed and quicker blood flow to the arms and legs to achieve that. Driving the rush of blood is jacked-up blood pressure and a rapid heart rate.

These are all major adjustments to how our bodies operate and the equilibrium they need to function properly. With chronic stress, these and other realignments become the staging grounds for long-term damage. The effects of the increased heart rate and blood pressure alone are enough to make anyone swear off chronic stress (and, yes, we can do that by managing our reactions). They lead to the nation’s number one killer, cardiovascular disease.

The heart, arteries, and blood vessels have to work much harder under the command of the stress response, which they can manage for a while, but after a continuous period of excess emergency mode, things start breaking down.

The intense velocity of blood gushing through blood vessels like water through a fire hose starts wearing down the lining inside the vessel, causing little tears and pockets that attract a crowd—immune cells, foam cells of fatty nutrients, circulating platelets that promote clotting, fat, glucose, bad cholesterol, and plaque.

It’s standing room only inside your blood vessels and a heightened risk for clogs that restrict the flow of blood raging through veins in the form of atherosclerosis.

HEART ATTACK RISK

And that’s not the only way chronic stress alters the critical work of your circulatory system. The force of the blood flowing through veins is so great that it causes muscles to grow around them to contain the load. Those muscles, in turn, can clamp down on the vessels, making them more rigid, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure further.

Chronically increased blood pressure leads to hypertension and a host of issues that come from it, including heart attacks. Forcing the heart to pump faster and harder than it’s supposed to beefs up the muscle on the left side of the heart wall, leading to left ventricular hypertrophy, which is the top tipoff of cardiac risk.

Meanwhile, over in the abdomen department, chronic stress is mucking up your body’s digestion equipment by putting the system on idle. It forces the stomach to cut down on acid secretion, and bicarbonate and mucous production, which help protect the stomach. These and other changes left to fester from ongoing stress can lead to gastritis, acid rebound, ulcers when combined with the Helicobacter pylori microbe, and irritable bowel disease.

SUPPRESSED IMMUNE SYSTEM

The need to keep the immune system functioning well is a pretty simple concept to grasp. Without our built-in defenses keeping at bay a world buzzing with bacteria, microbes, parasites, and viruses, we are more apt to come down with any number of health problems. Long-term interruption of the immune system from stress causes a 40% to 70% reduction in the various metrics of the immune system function.

Stress releases a flood of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol and other steroid hormones into the bloodstream. They have been shown to interfere with the body’s immune agents, such as lymphocyte cells, sidelining some, disappearing others inside immune cells, and even killing lymphocytes.

As University of California at Berkeley’s Robert Sapolsky detailed in his fabulous book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “Give someone massive amounts of glucocorticoids, or a huge stressor that has gone on for many hours, and the hormones will be killing lymphocytes indiscriminately, just mowing them down. Have a subtle rise in glucocorticoid levels for a short time…and the hormones kill only a particular subset of lymphocytes—older ones, ones that don’t work as well.”

Clearly, then, the smart thing to do is to stop ignoring stress, or sucking it up, as we are told we have to do. When we don’t challenge stress and turn off its false danger signal, we think about it. It’s this rumination, the circular cogitating over the exaggerated belief kicked up by an ancient brain that doesn’t get the modern world that drives stress—and chronic ailments and diseases that come from it. It’s the story we tell ourselves about the stressful event that causes stress, not the external event.

CATCH YOURSELF IN THE REACTION ACT

This is something we can change by cutting off the stress spiral as soon as possible after the stress response is triggered. The longer the irrational emotions from our primitive limbic system are allowed to fan the false belief of stress (always false unless it’s a real life-or-death event for you), the more the bogus belief is entrenched as real. And off we go for who knows how long with the cumulative damage to our cardiovascular system, digestion, and immune systems, among many other impacts.

We have to become adept at catching ourselves when we go off on emotional reactions. When someone or something pushes your buttons, use the wave of white-hot emotion—rage, anger, embarrassment—set off by the demand or pressure as the clue that you have to not grab those emotions and the catastrophic thought/belief fanning it in your brain.

Notice it, take a series of deep breaths, and analyze the category of stress that has been set off—ego hit, unfairness, overload, or any other impetus. Having to categorize it starts the process of waking up your analytical, modern brain, which can then retake command of faculties from the ancient hijacker.

Next, identify the false story behind the stressor. What is the extreme belief behind it? How useful is this thought? What’s behind this stressor that is setting off the emotions? What’s behind that? What’s behind that? Keep going until you find that the bottom-line cause is not a life-or-death emergency.

Tell yourself you can handle it, because you always do handle it. You may not know how at this moment, but you will, just like every other time you rose to the occasion. With that, you have cut off the destructive wrecking ball of chronic stress before it can spiral into a multi-day/week/month/year destruction derby of life-changing medical conditions.

If you would like to learn more about how to beat the default stress reflex in your organization or individually, click the button below for details on my stress management trainings and keynotes or here for stress management coaching for individuals.

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Tags: stress reduction techniques, chronic stress symptoms, risks of chronic stress

Why Talking to Yourself Isn't Crazy But a Very Smart Tool to Cut Stress and Manage Your Mind

Posted by Joe Robinson

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It used to be that talking to yourself was a sign that perhaps a chat with a health professional was in order. Today, when the guy in the cereal aisle is carrying on a conversation about Cinnamon Toast Crunch all by himself, there is no longer any worry about mental faculties. He’s obviously got an earpiece and is double-checking by phone with the supply chief at home to make sure he doesn’t make someone very unhappy with his choice. Cereal can be very personal.

There’s a new respectability to verbalizing out loud without a soul around, and there should be. It turns out that bringing thoughts from the head into the world of experience is a powerful tool to help humans focus, remember, keep anxiety at bay, and self-regulate. If you are not talking to yourself out loud, you are missing out on a force that can overcome the biggest obstacle to healthy functioning: the thoughts in our own brains.

SPOKEN WORDS CURB BAD HABITS

There is a lot of flotsam and jetsam washing in and out of our minds every day. Using key phrases out loud can override the noise and cue us to what we need to be emphasizing, prioritizing, or focusing on amid all the interior babble.

Researchers have found, for instance, that if you need to pay attention to something, you can get neurons to perk up and do just that by telling yourself out loud that you’re going to focus on a task like a laser. That command breaks through chaos and prompts increased attention.

Peter Gollwitzer at New York University has shown the power of stating your intentions out loud to strengthen prospective memory and prime the brain to replace a bad habit with a good one. Gollwitzer is creator of the implementation intention, one of the best devices to both remember something you have to do and get rid of a habit you don’t want. The technique is based on stating a future intention in an if-then statement. “If I see chocolate cake, then I’m going to avoid it.” Saying the if-then phrase out loud a couple of times builds a habit that counters the impulse of immediately scarfing down the cake next time you see it.

The implementation intention is an awesome weapon to help reduce stress, guilt, time frenzy, and a host of other autopilot habits that self-inflict dramas in our life. Yet it wouldn’t have nearly the encoding power on brain neurons if you just kept it to yourself and didn’t state it out loud. The goal gets lost in the thought factory; the commitment isn’t so resolute without the verbalization.

MOTIVATIONAL CUES

I’m a big believer in using the spoken word to counter ruminative thought and buoy motivation. It’s something we use strategically in my work-life balance and stress management programs to cut off emotional reactions at the pass and build better attention.

Speaking out loud to yourself works on several levels. It’s great as an instructional tool, helping you focus on how to do a new task as you’re doing it. “Step forward and pivot 180 degrees,” helps you concentrate and make the dance move. “Make sure the shelf is facing the right direction” prevents the IKEA misadventure.

Spoken strategic phrases also serve as motivational cues to help keep eyes on the prize. A study that measured the impact of out-loud self-talk showed that basketball players who used motivational phrases increased skills that involved speed. Instructional phrases improved skills that required accuracy and timing.

Another area that spoken phrases are very effective at is managing stress. Catching yourself with a loud “Stop!” as you slam a table can shut down the rumination factory of catastrophic thoughts and awfulizing. Phrases such as “Move on!” and “Don’t react” are also good at extracting us from the entrainment of negative thinking.

IT'S HOW YOU SAY IT

It’s not just what we say to ourselves, but how we say it that can calm a boiling mind. A fascinating study led by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan found that verbal self-talk can provide psychological distance from ourselves and emotions stirred up by the egocentric brain. When we frame our actions more objectively under social stress by referring to ourselves in the second- or third-person, instead of the usual first-person, we increase self-regulation over our thoughts and anxieties 

“Psychological distancing strategies enhance people’s capacity to exert self-control when faced with tempting options in the short term,” Kross and colleagues write. In the study, they found that non-first person pronouns and using your own name, as pro athletes often do in interviews, creates more neutral thoughts and behavior under social stress.

If I was to say, “Joe Robinson can handle this meeting” out loud or “You can get that big project started,” I would be framing an impending stressful event more as a challenge than a threat, the signal of something beyond coping capacity that turns on the stress response.

Emotional distancing is key to almost all stress reduction techniques. The idea is to view a stressful scenario as a friend or lawyer for yourself would—detached or non-personally. Taking things personally is the default reaction when emotional reactions go off, and that keeps them going. We have to turn off the personalization to be able to turn down the emotions and bring back our 21st century analytical brain, which gets hijacked by the ancient emotional brain in a threatening moment.

When we bring thoughts into experience by uttering them, they achieve more weight. We take the thought, action, and us more seriously. The same goes for limiting things we might say about ourselves to ourselves or to others—such as “I can’t handle this,” “I’m overwhelmed,” or “these things always happen to me.” We box ourselves in to the stress response and pessimism with language like that, whereas statements that frame a positive intention can provide a healthy path forward.

It makes sense that talking out loud should work, since that’s the way we win any argument with somebody else. You don’t persuade through mind-reading but through the use of oral language. The sound of the voice makes it real.

Thoughts aren’t real, only experience is. Talk to yourself, and you cut through the clamor of internal self-talk to focus on the motivating words or the self-distancing phrase that can help you make the right choice under pressure. Like in that cereal aisle. Say it three times: "Cinnamon Toast Crunch," and you won't forget.

If you would like to learn more about how our work-life balance and stress management employee trainings can help you and your team manage demands and be more self-motivating, click the button below for details on one of our programs.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

Tags: employee stress management, self-talk, managing the mind, talking to yourself, self-motivation, stress reduction techniques

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