The Joy of Stress


My aunt is a national treasure. Unfortunately, she has been suffering terribly from rheumatoid arthritis and is navigating her way through treatment options to limit the damage and pain. In our last email exchange, she mentioned the most interesting thing: ‘I’m not feeling too bad, but when I’m around negative people my joints hurt more.’

Natural medicine is always linking our attitude to our physical health. Previously it was thought our brain was unpliable. Fixed. No room for rewiring or repair. If there was damage, the function within that area was thought to be lost forever. We now know differently. Through the science of neuroplasticity, we understand how our thoughts can challenge and transform existing wiring and brain chemistry.

The prefrontal cortex is the pleasure centre where all this activity takes place. It’s a pretty dynamic part of the brain. We know that through joyful optimistic thoughts we can boost our feel good serotonin levels and lower the stress hormone cortisol. Positive thoughts essentially help the brain to grow. A buoyant mentality establishes and reinforces new synapses in the brain making it healthier, more productive and efficient.

So when my aunt is around friends who encourage positivity and laughter her brain is flooded with dopamine, a natural analgesic. What a wonderful remedy for pain. If only this was the prescription we received from our GP’ ‘I suggest you remove negative influences. If pain persists, have tea with a fabulous friend twice a day!’

For the diehard realists, I understand that to remove completely the daily pressures of life is in itself a stressful proposition. A society juggling increasing workloads, families, partners and communities in a 24 hour media cycle is not just taxing, it can feel overwhelming. With the demands of daily life how do we manage stress when it is an expected and inevitable part of a Western lifestyle?

The commonly held belief is that stress is bad for you. It boosts cortisol levels and when left unattended it compromises our health. But what if I gave you a new way to think about stress? What if I told you it’s not the stress that’s harmful; it’s simply the way you think about it.

There is a dynamic US psychologist, Dr Kelly McGonigal, whose research focuses on stress and its impact on longevity. Her study included 30,000 adults over eight years, and here’s what she found. For those people who were under a lot of stress and believed the stress to be harmful, they had an increased 43% likelihood of death. Alternately those under high levels of stress, but felt positively towards that stress, they had a no more likely increase of dying than those who had relatively little stress. She shows us that it really is our belief about stress being bad which shapes the damage it does.

In a typical stressful situation the heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict reducing blood flow and compromising the cardiovascular system. Indications considered harmful to the body. Yet, in the studies where the recipients believed the stress was positive, sure their heart rates still pounded, but their blood vessels remained relaxed, encouraging blood flow. Dr McGonigal likens this second response to what happens in our bodies in times of joy, courage and exercise. How we think about stress matters.

Central to all of this are the efforts of a very important hormone. Oxytocin, the feel-good hormone. This hormone primes you to strengthen close relationships by craving physical contact. It also activates empathy, and enables a willingness to help and support others. Did you know in times of stress the brain pumps out not only adrenalin but large amounts of oxytocin as well? The reason? It motivates you to seek support.

Not only does oxytocin act on the brain but it also supports the body by having an anti-inflammatory effect on our vascular health. Oxytocin can actually strengthen your heart by helping to repair heart cells from the damage caused by stress. Reaching out under stress and connecting with others reduces the effects of stress and actually has a positive effect, just as if you were experiencing a joyful situation. It appears the stress response has a built in protective mechanism, human connection. Caring creates resilience.

By connecting compassionately to others we create strength under stress. By choosing our attitude and responses to stress we are telling our bodies that we can handle pressure, and by recognising the signs of stress we can learn to interpret them positively.

The physical signs of stress are our body’s way of energising us and preparing us to successfully meet life’s challenges. If we lend a hand by adjusting our thinking, then we are potentially not only extending our lifespan but creating a culture of care and collaboration.

* Michelle Reeve is the founder and managing director of leading spa wellness brand Waterlily Australasia, encompassing more then 150 professional skin, body and spa rituals. Michelle is an expert in a range of natural medicine modalities but it is her extensive experience in aromatherapy that inspires and drives her passion to continue to deliver true active ‘aromaceutical’ solutions for spas.

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