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science   ·   21. Feb 2022

changing stress from foe to friend (part 2)

how research suggests we can learn how to experience a healthier stress

Click here to read part 1 of this article.*

Physically, stress is but a hormonal jolt of physical energy and heightened focus that allows us to confront an actual or perceived threat. 

It’s a normal evolutionary response that passes quickly and is followed by the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system switching back on, preparing us for recovery and plenty of rest before tackling our next challenge. Hormones associated with stress can even protect the body and improve our adaptation to the local environment (1). 

In theory, our stress response is only maladaptive when it occurs very frequently or for a prolonged amount of time. And just like training for a marathon, or playing a sport, we require mindful recovery time from our stress - not as an optional activity, but an absolute must

Prolonged stress is usually the result of ignoring the triggers of our stress in the first place and simply “dealing” with the problems we face without taking the steps to resolve them.

But the key is that the way our body communicates with our brain about stress is a two-way system. The difference in whether the effect of stress is protective or damaging, comes down to how we get the two to communicate following these periods of high stress and strain. 

Although we already know it isn’t fair to say stress is something that happens, “all in your head,” the brain is still the organ responsible for determining whether a situation should make you stressed out in the first place. 

The chemistry of our brain changes under the experience of acute or chronic stress, directing the many systems of the body (metabolic, cardiovascular, immune) to act in accordance, as a result. Too often, however, we don’t acknowledge our stress, and therefore we don’t give ourselves a chance to calm down. 

Thankfully almost any act that involves a conscious processing of the reason we’re stressed - whether that’s a moment away from a screen, relaxing in nature, or making yourself a cup of tea - can really help signal the body to relax, and the parasympathetic nervous system to switch back on (2).

And the reverse is also true. A lack of movement in our body or any tension we hold, can relay signals to the brain to continue being stressed out (3). 

This is one of the reasons why yoga, meditation, and any form of exercise can really help. Altering the way we breathe, focusing on the side to side movement of the eyes (more on this below), and physically exerting ourselves just a little bit, allows the “recovery phase” of a stressful experience to be more easily brought on. 

But a little easier said than done… 

We’d much rather snap our fingers and pretend stress was just a side effect of personal growth and positive action, right?

thinking our way into better, healthier stress

In 2013, a study was conducted to analyse the relationship between a person’s perception of stress and the outcome of their health (both mental and physical). It followed nearly 30,000 individuals over the course of 8 years making it both the first largest-ever study to do so. 

Participants were repeatedly asked A) how much stress they experienced, and B) whether or not they thought stress affected their health. In other words, did they believe it was possible to have healthy (or at least healthier) stress?

The researchers of the study were shocked when they found that for those who experienced high levels of stress, and did perceive stress to affect their health, the risk of poor health outcomes and premature death was increased by 43%. 

For those who reported high levels of stress, and did not perceive stress to affect their health, however, the risk of poor health outcomes and premature death was the lowest of all participants - and even those who reported their stress as extremely low (4). 

So what exactly does this tell us? 

Well it certainly acts as some encouragement to rethink our interaction with and perception of stress, and maybe lean more into the idea that some stress, when managed correctly, can indeed be healthy for us.

Subsequent studies suggest that the more we believe we have control over our stress, the more easily the harmful side effects of stress go away. Sometimes (as you’ll soon read), all it takes is a little knowledge about the inner-workings of the human body - and suddenly, we’re back in control. 

reducing stress using only your eyes (yes really!)

As we covered previously in part 1 of this series, the sympathetic nervous system is what controls your body’s flight, fight, or freeze response. It does this using a part of the brain referred to as the amygdala, triggering the release of stress hormones and creating physiological discomfort (sweaty palms, raised blood pressure, racing heart) as a result. 

Now, it’s important to understand that a side effect of stress is feeling like things are spiraling out of control. (It doesn’t mean they actually are - it’s just what we feel when the sympathetic nervous system begins to take over).

But what can happen is a negative spiral of anxiety, and an inability to focus on anything else, let alone look for ways to relax like we mentioned before. It’s also where the phrase, “tunnel-vision” comes from. 

Tunnel vision has a very simple effect on the eyes: they don’t move. 

They become locked in to whatever the perceived threat is, drawing more and more attention to that thing. It’s perhaps the most basic rule of survival to not look away from the angry lion. 

But now imagine the opposite of being stressed-out and anxious and try to think of what might happen specifically to the movement of the eyes. For instance, picture the way your eyes might move if you were taking a scroll in the park. 

Are they fixated on one singular thing? No, they’re likely wandering around, moving side-to-side, taking in all the beautiful scenery and blinking often. Part of the key process here (and you’ll notice this next time you walk anywhere, for sure) has to do with forward motion. As you walk forward, you pass things by. What this means is that things that were once front and center to your line of vision, slowly but surely make their way into your peripheral vision and eventually disappear behind you. 

Understandably, this is not what happens when you are stressed - from an evolutionary perspective you wouldn’t want to be peeling your eyes off of the threat — let alone allowing an angry lion to sneak up behind you.

As it turns out, this forward motion, paired with the natural tendency of the eyes, results in a side-to-side motion that completely quiets the response of the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system (5).

Simply put, looking side-to-side gently shuts down the areas of your brain responsible for putting you in a flight, fight, or freeze response —rapidly decreasing your anxiety and fearfulness as a result.

This is an especially fascinating body hack because for the longest time, researchers couldn’t figure out why walking forward had such a calming response.

This is because the threat detection center of the brain — the amygdala — isn’t connected at all to the limbs. In other words, how on earth could the amygdala recognise whether or not we were moving?

Well, as it turned out, the answer had everything to do with the eyes. We know for a fact that the amygdala is extremely aligned with the movement of the eyes, and (as we finally know now) it can tell we’re on a walk strictly because of the way we view our surroundings when we’re in motion, moving forward.

As a result, walking, reading, repeatedly looking side-to-side (or anything involving lateral movement of the eyes) is all it takes to suppress the amygdala and initiate a calming response in the body. 

A simple but neuroscientifically-certain method to decrease stress. 

changing stress from foe to friend

By understanding where exactly problems with stress arise (when acute becomes chronic), how our body responds to different stressors on a physiological level, and the power of shifting our perspective towards the notion of "healthier stress", we have all the tools we need to start working with, and not against, our natural response to rough times.

With the knowledge that stress is designed to make us feel out of control, and the insight that a simple movement of the body or eyes can help us silence that frame of mind, we can begin to let it go - turning stress from foe, back into friend. 

Besides, at its very core stress is designed to motivate, and to act as a key signal that it’s time for a rest or a change. With time, and with practice, it’s good to know that our bodies will eventually get the memo.

Text References:

  1. McEwen B. S. (2006). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience8(4), 367–381.
  2. Can, Y. S., Iles-Smith, H., Chalabianloo, N., Ekiz, D., Fernández-Álvarez, J., Repetto, C., Riva, G., & Ersoy, C. (2020). How to Relax in Stressful Situations: A Smart Stress Reduction System. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland)8(2), 100.
  3. McEwen B. S. (2006). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience8(4), 367–381.
  4. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association31(5), 677–684
  5. de Voogd, L. D., Kanen, J. W., Neville, D. A., Roelofs, K., Fernández, G., & Hermans, E. J. (2018). Eye-Movement Intervention Enhances Extinction via Amygdala Deactivation. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience38(40), 8694–8706.

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