Stress in a Good Way: An Excerpt from The Telomere Effect
A professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, Elissa Epel is the director of the Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center. With Nobel laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn—who discovered the anti-aging enzyme telomerase—Epel is coauthor of the New York Times best seller The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. What follows is an excerpt about stress resilience from Chapter Four of that groundbreaking book.
Excited and Energized: The Challenge Response
Feeling threatened is not the only way to respond to stress. It’s also possible to feel a sense of challenge. People with a challenge response may feel anxious and nervous during a lab stressor test, but they also feel excited and energized. They have a “bring it on!” mentality.
Our colleague, Wendy Mendes, a health psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), has spent over a decade examining the body’s responses to different types of stressors in the lab, and has mapped out the differences that occur in the brain, in the body, and in behavior during “good stress” compared to “bad stress.”
Whereas the threat response prepares you to shut down and tolerate the pain, the challenge response helps you muster your resources.
Your heart rate increases, and more of your blood is oxygenated; these are positive effects that allow more blood to flow where it’s needed, especially to the heart and brain. (This is the opposite of what happens when you’re threatened. Then, the blood vessels constrict.)
During the challenge response, your adrenal gland gives you a nice shot of cortisol to increase your energy—but then your brain quickly and firmly shuts off cortisol secretion when the stressful event is over.
This is a robust, healthy kind of stress, similar to the kind you may have when you exercise.
The challenge response is associated with making more accurate decisions and doing better on tasks, and is even associated with better brain aging and a reduced risk of developing dementia. Athletes who have a challenge response win more often, and a study of Olympic athletes has shown that these highly successful folks have a history of seeing their life problems as challenges to be surmounted.
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The challenge response creates the psychological and physiological conditions for you to engage fully, perform at your best, and win. The threat response is characterized by withdrawal and defeat, as you slump in your seat or freeze, your body preparing for wounding and shame as you anticipate a bad outcome. A predominant habitual threat response can, over time, work itself into your cells and grind down your telomeres. A predominant challenge response, though, may help shield your telomeres from some of the worst effects of chronic stress.
People don’t generally show responses that are all threat or all challenge.
Most experience some of both. In one study, we found that it was the proportion of these responses that mattered most for telomere health. The volunteers who felt more threat than challenge had shorter telomeres. Those who saw the stressful task as more of a challenge than a threat had longer telomeres.
What does this mean for you? It means you have reason to be hopeful. We do not mean to trivialize or underestimate the potential that very tough, difficult, or intractable situations have for harm to your telomeres. But when you can’t control the difficult or stressful events in your life, you can still help protect your telomeres by shifting the way you view those events.
Why Do Some People Feel More Threat Than Others?
Reflect on incidents in your life that have been difficult. Ask yourself: Do you tend to respond by feeling more threatened or challenged? Do you borrow trouble, feeling anticipatory threat about events that haven’t happened yet and that may not ever happen?
When you’re stressed, do you feel ready for action, or do you feel like diving under the covers and hiding?
If you tend to feel more of a threat response, don’t waste your time feeling bad about it.
Some of us are simply wired to be more stress reactive. It has been critical to human survival for some of us to respond in a robust way to changes in our environment, and for others to be more sensitive. After all, someone’s got to alert the tribe to dangers and warn the more gung-ho members against taking foolhardy risks.
Even if you weren’t strongly wired at birth to feel threat, conditions in your life may have altered your natural response. Teenagers who were exposed to maltreatment when they were children respond to stressful tasks with blood-flow patterns characteristic of a threat response, experiencing vasoconstriction rather than strong blood flow out of the heart. (On the other hand, people who experienced moderate adversity in childhood tend to show more of a challenge response than people who had it easy as children—more evidence that small doses of stress can be healthy, provided that resources are available to help you cope.) As we described earlier, prolonged stress can wear down emotional resources, making people more prone to feeling threatened.
Either by birth or by the circumstances of your life, you may have a strong threat response.
The question is: Can you learn to feel challenged instead?
Research says the answer is yes.
Developing A Challenge Response
What happens as an emotion arises? Scientists used to believe it was a more linear process—that we experience events in the world, our limbic system reacts with an emotion, like anger or fear, which causes the body to respond with an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. But it’s more complicated than that.
The brain is wired to predict things ahead of time, not just react after things have happened.
The brain uses memories of past experiences to continually anticipate what will happen next, and then corrects those predictions with both the current incoming information from the outside world, and from all the signals within our body. Then our brain comes up with an emotion to match all of this. Within seconds, we patch all this information together, without our awareness, and we feel some emotion.
If our “database” of past experience has a lot of shame in it, we are more likely to expect shame again. For example, if you feel high arousal and jittery, maybe from that morning’s strong coffee, and if you see two people who could be talking about you, your mind may quickly cook up the emotions of shame and threat.
Our emotions are not pure reactions to the world; they are our own fabricated constructions of the world.
Knowing how emotions are created is powerful. Once you know this, you can have more choice over what you experience. Instead of feeling your body’s stress responses and viewing them as harmful, a common experience in your brain’s database, you can think about your body’s arousal as a source of fuel that will help your brain work quickly and efficiently. And if you practice this enough, then eventually your brain will come to predict feelings of arousal as helpful.
Even if you’re one of those people whose brain is hardwired to feel more threat, you can feel that immediate instinctive survival response—and then revise the story.
You can choose to feel challenged.
Sports psychologist Jim Afremow, PhD, who consults with professional and Olympic athletes, was once approached by a sprinter who was struggling with her hundred-meter time. She had already diagnosed the reason she wasn’t running as well as she wanted to. “It’s the stress,” she said. “Before every race, my pulse races. My heart is about to jump out of my chest. You’ve got to help me stop it!”
Afremow laughed. “Do you really want to stop your heart?” The worst thing athletes can do, he says, is try to get rid of their stress.
“They need to think of stress as helping them get ready to perform. They need to say, ‘Yes! I need this!’ Instead of trying to make the butterflies in their stomach go away, athletes need to make those butterflies line up and fly in formation.” In other words, they need to make the stress work for them.
The sprinter took Afremow’s advice. By viewing her physical responses as tools that would help her rise to the challenge of a race, she was able to shave milliseconds off her time (a big deal for a hundred-meter runner) and set a personal record.
It sounds unbelievably simple, but research backs up this efficient method of converting threat to challenge.
When research volunteers are told to interpret their body’s arousal as something that will help them succeed, they have a greater challenge response. One study found that students who are encouraged to view stress in this way score higher on their GREs.
And when researchers put people through lab stressors, the ones who are told to think of stress as useful are able to maintain their social equilibrium. Instead of looking away, playing with their hair, or fidgeting—all signs of feeling somewhat threatened—the challenge participants make direct eye contact. Their shoulders are relaxed, and their bodies move fluidly. They feel less anxiety and shame. All these benefits happened simply because people were told to think of their stress as good for them.
A challenge response doesn’t make you less stressed.
Your sympathetic nervous system is still highly aroused, but it is a positive arousal, putting you in a more powerful, more focused state.
To channel your stress so that it gives you more good energy for an event or performance, say to yourself, “I’m excited!” or “My heart is racing and my stomach is doing cartwheels. Fantastic—those are the signs of a good, strong stress response.”
Excerpted from The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Grand Central Publishing.