Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Reframe Stress

The fight-or-flight stress response is designed to help us survive threats.  Our body automatically scans our environment for threat and when detected, it reacts by marshalling the right resources for a response to the challenge.  Our attitude about this process can make us more resilient.

Understanding the stress response, and framing our reaction as our body’s way of helping us deal with adversity, can change some key aspects of the stress response to make it more helpful and less harmful.  When the body increases heart rate and blood pressure, and sends additional glucose into the bloodstream, this defense mechanism is meant to give you an edge when dealing with a challenge such as an important presentation, a complex meeting, a job interview, or an athletic competition. 

When you view stress negatively, believing you are anxious, afraid, or not coping well, the blood vessels constrict when your heart rate increases.  This is one reason that chronic stress, a long-term stress response, is harmful to your cardiovascular system and increases the risk of a heart attack.  When you view the stress response as the body’s system for priming you for optimal performance, your blood vessels stay relaxed.  This allows your body to pump more blood to your system, like when you exercise.

Having a more positive reaction to your body’s stress response is also better for your brain.  It results in a smaller release of the stress hormone cortisol, and an increase in DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone is known as the anti-aging hormone) and an increase in oxytocin, the bonding neurotransmitter. 

Oxytocin promotes prosocial behavior.  Shelley E. Taylor developed the tend-and-befriend theory to explain how oxytocin promotes affiliative behavior during the stress response.  She writes that this response motivates people to protect their children and to work together with community members for comfort and protection.  She explains this reaction appears more in women than men which may contribute to longer lifespans of women.  Her paper states that having social support predicts 2.8 years of increased longevity for women and 2.3 years for men.  Prosocial or altruistic behavior can down-regulate the stress response in both the care giver and the cared for.  Thus, seeking or providing social support during stressful times is a healthy choice.

Takeaway:  Reframing our attitude about daily transient stressors can make stress less harmful and can promote resilience.  Think of the short-term stress response as priming you for optimal performance.

Sources

Sandee LaMott, Stress can be Good for You, and Here’s Why, cnn.com, Apr 1, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/01/health/stress-good-for-you-wellness/index.html.

Shelley E. Taylor, Tend and Befriend Theory, To appear in A. M. van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, and E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology. Sage Publications, https://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2014/11/2011_Tend-and-Befriend-Theory.pdf

To learn more about developing stress resilience: Kelly McGonigal, PhD, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It (2016).

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