I was a weird kid. Big surprise. When my friends and I played house, my favorite moment was nap time. In fact, I come from a proud lineage of nappers. My mother’s favorite mantra was, why stand when you can sit, why sit when you can lie.
So, as you can imagine, movement was not my friend, and I ended up a little chubby as well as asthmatic. ANY movement felt like “too much;” in elementary school, I could always be counted on to hold the rope, not jump it, and I WANTED to be the last one chosen for kick-ball, just in case being odd I needed to sit the game out.
So the complaint of too much stress is a familiar one. You’ve read several times in my writings that a common definition of trauma is overwhelming stress. Before you nod your head in recognition, though, let’s stop for a few minutes and challenge that notion. What constitutes “too much stress?” This is what I’ve learned: the experience of stress is greatest when our stamina is low.
Sitting on a couch does not help. Trying to run the marathon at the start does not help. Workouts that build in intensity and build our stamina do, emotionally as well as physically.
Exercise has much to teach us about stress, and how to build a better relationship with it. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I’m a redeemed couch potato. A series of personal trainers, yoga teachers, and gyms have completely reframed how I interpret that beating heart, the profuse sweat that blinds me, the gasping breath and the heat build-up. These are not symptoms of impending death, these are the sensations of emerging life. Prana, if you will. The body oxygenating the brain for sharper thinking, pumping more blood into tissues in preparation for movement and strength-building.
Kelly McGonigal did a TED Talk in Scotland in 2013, which I’m sharing with you now. In it, she confesses the error of her ways, in demonizing stress. As it turns out, stress is mainly bad for you if you BELIEVE it’s bad for you…the fear of the stress will get you. If you have a framework for stress that says, instead, that the bodily sensations associated with stress are getting you ready to respond most effectively to difficult situations, your mortality and illness rates are no greater than those with milder stress.
So, next time you’re exercising (think, “stressing”) and that nasty little voice in your head says, enough, you can’t take anymore…or, with similar voice in cranium, you back off from asking someone out, going for that raise, or getting into therapy to deal with baggage you’ve been carrying far too long, instead make the choice to lean into the activation. You’re working out. Build that stamina!
Dr. M doesn’t stop there, however. And this is something I did not know. Oxytocin is a well known hormone I’ve written about before, it’s the hormone of bonding, released by both mother and child during breastfeeding, for example. But, and this is the biggie, it is a STRESS hormone. It is released during stress. It is the chemical component of attachment, a subject I’ve expanded on quite a bit (so I won’t go into it here, but feel free to do a search for it in this site). When we are stressed, oxytocin is released, and demands to connect with others. At the start, a loving parent; throughout life, caring friends and family. When it is released and satisfied, it actually bonds with the heart muscle, making the muscle stronger!
Stress can be good for you! Who knew???