embracing stress 2

Embracing Stress: Changing Beliefs, Mindsets & Biology

December 9, 2016

The headlines read - Stress is bad for you! Stress will make you gain weight! Stress will decrease your immune system functioning! Learn how to live a stress-free life!

All of these headlines would have us believe that stress is bad and that we need to avoid it at all costs. However, stress is inevitable. It is a part of life. Luckily these headlines don’t tell the whole story. Stress can be both good and bad. Simply put, stress is “any change.” You see now why living a stress-free life is unrealistic.

How we approach our stress and manage it are what matters.

Managing Stress is Important

Why is managing stress so important? Think about the saying “Life causes obesity; food is just the vehicle.” Since stress is any change, think about how many changes we go through daily. Some changes are tiny but some are really big. The way we perceive these changes and how we approach them are key! Research is showing us now that how we perceive and approach life can actually change our biology too.

How we CHOOSE to think can change our biological responses. Simply put, “The effect you expect is the effect you get.”

Dr. Alia Crum performed a study called the Shake Tasting Study (2011):

Participants were asked to fast overnight, then come to the lab at 8 am.
First Visit:Given a milkshake labeled “Chocolate Decadence You Deserve”
Nutritional Label: 620 calories, 30 g fat
Second Visit:
(One Week Later)
Given a milkshake labeled “Sensi-Shake: Guilt Free Satisfaction"
Nutritional Label: 140 calories, 0 g fat

As the participants drank their shakes, they were hooked up to an IV catheter that drew blood samples. Dr. Crum was measuring changes in blood levels of ghrelin (hunger hormone). When you eat something high in calories or fat, ghrelin levels drop signaling your brain that you are full. When you eat something low in calories or fat, the ghrelin does not drop as much and you feel hungrier quicker.

So, when the participants drank the “indulgent treat”, their ghrelin levels dropped three times as much as when they drank the “Sensi-Shake.” You would expect the ghrelin levels to drop with the decadent shake but not with the low-calorie shake. And that is exactly what happened! However, the shakes were exactly the SAME shake!

There should have been absolutely NO difference in how the participant’s digestive systems responded. But there was. When people’s perceptions changed, so did their bodily responses. Several other studies have shown exactly the same thing. The effect you expect is the effect you get. Dr. Crum has now turned her attention to stress – could the effect that stress has on your well-being be determined, in part, by which effect you expect? The answer is turning out to be YES!

Thinking of Stress Differently

Dr. Kelly McGonigal has written a fascinating book about how to look at stress in a different light. The book is entitled “The Upside of Stress.” She addresses the idea of embracing our stress and turning it to work for our good. She attacks the current mindset of stress and asks us to think in a very different way. She offers up this concept of stress: “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake.”

There are many different ways to cope with stress. However, for this article, I am only going to talk about how we can change our thinking to being more positive. Throughout the day, our brain is talking to us. Much of what it is saying is negative. Speaking to yourself negatively all day long is not going to make you feel good about yourself or be in a good mood. For whatever reason, when those negative thoughts are careening around in our head, they make all the sense in the world. However, if you were to speak them out loud, you would see how harmful and mean they really are. Sometimes when clients come in and start telling me things they have been telling themselves, they will get a horrified look on their face or just start laughing because they know what mean thing they have said to themselves is simply not true!

Negative Thinking Can Work FOR YOU

Our minds are automatically geared toward negative thinking and problem solving. This way of thinking is actually a survival mechanism and can serve us well. When something negative happens, our brain wants to know how to fix it or change something so it doesn’t happen again. If something positive or neutral happens, our brain has no need to dwell on it because it doesn’t need to fix anything.

We have to consciously and consistently be aware of the negativity. Try to pay attention to what you are saying to yourself during a typical day. See how many times you say something negative, either blatant; “I am so ugly”, or subtle, “I wish Bill had been assigned this project.” The underlying message in the subtle statement could be something like “I am not good enough to do this” or “I am feeling overwhelmed and I don’t have time.”  In changing our thoughts, we want to catch the negative thought, evaluate whether it is irrational (unrealistic) and if it is, then change it to a more rational (realistic) thought.

Sometimes, people think we just want them to think positive thoughts about everything. That is not the goal here. Consider what you are saying to yourself and think about whether it is realistic or not.

It also helps to remember that thoughts are just thoughts! We do not have to do everything that we think of. Thank goodness or some of us would really be in trouble!

For example, let’s say that I want to eat healthier so I do great all day but then when I am headed home, I drive past a McDonald’s. My thought is “Oh wow, a Big Mac would taste really good. Turn in now.” I do NOT have to obey that thought. I can tell myself that the thought is just a thought and I am committed to eating healthy. I may also want to remind myself that I have made the commitment because being healthy is valuable to me. You can see how you really want to be mindful and pay attention to what you are saying to yourself!

The other night I was giving a talk to a bariatric support group about positive thinking and mindfulness. One of the participants said that after two years out of surgery (and being very successful), she still struggles with the cookie aisle. Another participant (five years out and doing very well) said she sometimes struggles with seeing a Pepsi and wanting it so bad even though she knows it will make her sick. We examined both of the thought processes and both participants were able to see that while those thoughts may never go away, they do not have to give in to them and they have the resources to think differently!

Managing Your Stress

If we can change the way we think about life and the negativity that is all around us and in our heads, then we have a much better chance of managing stress more productively.  Dr. McGonigal talks about the idea that when you are faced with a stressor from today’s life that is not as threatening as life or death, your brain and body shift into a different state called the challenge response.

This response gives you energy and helps you perform under pressure. This kind of stress response gives us access to our mental and physical resources. It increases our confidence, concentration and can improve our performance. When we choose to think positively about life and the stress that is before us, we can change our response to make it a challenge response. We can look forward to dealing with life because we know that we are capable.

Changing our thinking about stress helps us not only emotionally but also physically. We are never going to get rid of stress.

However, if we can remember that when we feel stressed, it is because something is going on that we care about and that we have the capability and resources to manage and approach the stress, we can feel confident about our lives.

We have the power to choose how we think about things and how we let those thoughts motivate us. Do not allow yourself to go through life on autopilot and buying into your negative thoughts. Be mindful, aware, resourceful and alive. You are definitely worth it!

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dawn reese


Dr. Dawn Reese is a Clinical Psychologist who specializes in Health Psychology/Behavioral Medicine. She has been practicing for 22 years and is currently in private practice. She has held Director positions at both The Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati and at Riverside Rehabilitation Institute as well as taught at the University of Mississippi, Old Dominion University and Hampton University. She speaks frequently at community support groups, including bariatric and grief groups and has written a chapter in the best-selling book, “Back on Track After Weight Loss Surgery.”