This article is part of The Everyday Warrior series, which contains advice, key interviews and tips for living a life of well-being, impact, growth and continuous learning.
We have long been sold the idea that stress is harmful. In part, we use this word to describe emotional states like anxiety or fatigue, as well as any instance and situation that adds pressure and fight-or-flight tension to our daily lives. In reality, we are complex biological creatures and the idea that stress is just a fight or flight response is shortsighted. In addition, our body physiologically reacts to our basic state of mind around stress. If you think a certain stimulus or stress is negative, your body will react accordingly. For example, while you may interpret an increase in your heart rate as unfavorable, this physiology and the neurotransmitters that are released in this situation actually work to aid your efforts, not inhibit them.
Stress: Embrace or Withdraw
Additionally, we have other more evolved stress or stimulus responses that many of us employ on a daily basis. They are known as the tenderness and friendship response and the courage response. If we change our mindset to meet challenges rather than running the other way, this will in turn change how we initiate self-care mechanisms. When a stressful moment occurs, the loving and befriending response encourages an individual to improve the situation for the team and/or family.
The response of being other-centered is cultivated (or neurologically rewired) to harness courage rather than succumbing to those common “fight” and “flight” responses. It is important to note that the reinterpretation of the potentially negative stimulus also changes the way the physiology of the body reacts. Whether we experience an event as positive or negative plays a role in the hormonal response as well as our body’s inflammatory response. For example, the more you think an experience works for you, the greater your body’s ability to limit cortisol response and manage blood pressure. Let’s say two people are about to jump out of a plane. Their hearts both race, but while one guy is completely elated and ready to roll, the other is terrified. Everyone has the same physiological experience with different biochemical or stress reactions.
The new science of stress has determined that it facilitates solutions, drives us to care for others, and improves our ability to focus and be solution-oriented. Unfortunately, many people remain chained to the belief that stress is crippling, debilitating and destructive. I would say you become how you interpret your experience.
Thrive naturally under pressure
We live in a society where stress is viewed as negative, a narrative that encourages us to de-stress. But what if we are wrong and the stress is necessary for authentic self-care? Convenient self-care goes beyond a drink with friends. It’s about diving headfirst into mental and physical discomfort. Show me someone who made a positive impact on the world, did something amazing, and lived stress-free. A life of friction is a life of growth. From a physiological point of view, the body develops under the interpretation of discomfort as a welcome signal for development and execution. Humans have a basic need for biological, physical and mental pressure. Stress is necessary for survival. He needs grain. Think about your muscles. They need metabolic stress, mechanical stress and nutrients to grow. Without pressure, not only do our muscles atrophy, but so does our mind.
I’ve been seeing patients for 15 years, and those who get the sickest have the most comfortable lives. When we don’t challenge ourselves with something uncomfortable, there is a subtle decline in well-being, which I believe leads to illnesses of convenience. Implementing self-discipline can enable you to take care of yourself in a meaningful way. For me, self-care is the ability to be your best friend and support yourself. Stress, at its core, is an internal response to an external stimulus that you can interpret as positive, negative, or neutral.
You can work to change your stress response by practicing it. Changing how you talk to yourself and what you believe to be your ability will allow you to thrive in times of stress. Become aware of your personal biases regarding stress and observe how you verbalize it to others. It is essential to take control of your inner voice rather than let your emotions control you, which leads to chronic stress.
To work on the courage response, place yourself in situations that elicit courage so you can improve it. If you’re struggling to shift your mindset around courage and stress, another act of self-care is leveraging your physiology (or body) to control the mind. Start with a 4×4 breath. Four inhales (and holds), followed by four exhales (and holds). This simple action allows you to regulate your autonomic nervous system by controlling your breathing. Of course, consult your health care provider first. Know that the idea here is not to eliminate stress, but to work with and control it. Pushing yourself physically is a gateway to potential. In addition, the action that builds physical resilience also provides mental stability.
We must also consider tenacity as a positive attribute. It’s not about being harder on someone or on yourself. It’s about being strong enough to navigate the world, so you can go out and dominate – whatever that means to you – instead of being a passenger in your own life. Facing adversity while refusing to be mediocre takes discipline. The same goes for choosing to be excellent in your own way.
Key points to remember
- Fight or flight is just one type of stress response.
- How you interpret a “stressful” stimulus has an impact on your physiology.
- Humans are designed for resilience.
Dr. Gabrielle Lyon is a fellowship-trained physician from the University of Washington and the founder of the Institute for Muscle-Centric Medicine™, where she works closely with special operations forces and has a private practice at serving patients around the world. She received her undergraduate degree in Human Nutrition, Vitamin and Mineral Metabolism from the University of Illinois and is Board Certified in Family Medicine.
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