Stress Test is a series about the science behind our busy lives and how stress affects our bodies. The biweekly column uncovers the latest research and explains how to put it to use in a practical way. Look for the science behind epigenetic markers of stress, mindfulness, meditation and deep brain stimulation.
In mid-April, I attended the Association of Health Care Journalists conference in Orlando. One of the sessions, “Science of Stress,” was a perfect fit for this column. I’m bringing you advice from one of the top stress researchers in the nation.
In recent years, Amit Sood, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who wrote Mayo’s Guide to Stress-Free Living, began noticing big differences between how his patients managed stress. One patient would be diagnosed with terminal cancer and spend the last six months enjoying life, yet another would be diagnosed with osteoarthritis and leave his office in tears. He began wondering, “Why do we have this disconnect between our external reality and our internal reactions?”
Sood began pairing neuroscience and evolutionary biology in his studies and found the main culprit is the way our brain is designed. Our minds focus on eliminating stressors in our lives in order to survive. We focus on our issues, and the more we allow our brains to default to the status that revolves around fear, the more it leads to anxiety, depression and fatigue. “The brain has a way of finding problems and getting busier,” he said at the AHCJ conference.
Through his research, Sood found that resilience often made the difference between those who handled stress well and those who didn’t. He then found that resilience can be trained, and it’s related to the awareness, attention and attitude we give to our stressors. If we can give our brains a break with uplifting emotions and motivations, we can increase the capacity for resilience.
“Take charge of your brain the way you would take charge of your heart if diagnosed with heart disease,” he said. “If you take medication for your heart, you can take a few minutes a day for your brain.”
Sood recommends four steps to increasing resiliency and decreasing overwhelming stress.
Intentionally focus on being grateful in the morning. Instead of looking at your phone as soon as you wake up, with thoughts of everything you must accomplish that day and adrenaline already surging through your system, take a moment.
Instead, try this: Don’t leave the bed until you think of five people you care about, and send them a positive thought.
“Stress is worse than hypertension and diabetes for heart disease,” he said. “Since 40 percent of us perceive we’re lonely, this practice helps us to go deeper rather than live superficially.”
This isn’t another clichéd endorsement for “living in the moment,” which Sood thinks has been corrupted from its original meaning. Instead, he means focusing on the actions that you’re doing, rather than reaching for your smartphone every 12-15 minutes, which is now the average for Americans.
Instead, try the Two-Minute Rule: Give two minutes to someone who deserves your attention but isn’t receiving it. When he arrives home from work, for example, Sood looks at his emails in the garage for a final time and prepares his mind to see his wife and two kids. He gives each family member two minutes of focused attention when he walks in the door, which research says is the amount of time we have to capture someone’s attention before they block us out. With his kids, he likes to ask open-ended questions such as, “What made you laugh today?” rather than, “How was your day?” He also recommends looking them in the eye, which boosts good-feeling hormones such as oxytocin in the body.
“I also zoom out to a meaningful number, such as the number of days until my daughter goes to college,” he said. “I won’t regret it 20 years from now.”
When our brain feels stress, the amygdala responds with a stress response while the prefrontal cortex responds with a rational response and the hippocampus supplies memories. Stress causes the amygdala to become more active and eventually atrophy, which sends us into a cycle of stress and anxiety when we worry.
Instead, try this: Take five minutes per day to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what types of stress and struggles they’re having. Then wish them well in your mind.
“In 10 seconds, we judge the trustworthiness, competence and aggressiveness of people we see,” Sood said. “If you decide to be actively aware, instead of juding them, you can wish them well instead.”
All of us have the competing voices in our head — the reactive, short-term thinker who has fears and desires versus the rational, long-term thinker who has values and seeks meaning. The oldest part of our brain focuses on survival and care of the self, and the newest part of the brain thinks about community and taking care of others.
Do this: Balance the two halves by setting a daily five-minute mindset practice. While driving to work or walking to the store, concentrate on a different resilience practice each day. Sood recommends reading small passages or quotes about the different aspects of resilience or finding a small way to extend it toward others, even if you’re silently telling others you’re thankful or patient.
“We don’t blame ourselves for back pain, which is a human health issue,” he said. “Similarly, excessive stress is a human issue related to the design of our human brains.”
Image: Flickr, Irudayam, CC-BY
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.