Today, I figured we could talk about something that often is shamed in the positive thinking or personal development community… the benefit of stress. Don’t get me wrong, stress is most of the time a baddy but a lot of people don’t understand what benefit stress can be and that we all need it to some extent.
From a neurochemical perspective we have two well known stress chemicals… cortisol and adrenaline or epinephrine. Cortisol makes us alert. Adrenaline makes us highly alert and ready for action. The flight, fight or fright response is as a result of adrenaline. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we experience adrenaline in our systems and our heart beats fast and we get a burst of energy.
Our levels of both chemicals naturally fluctuate during the day. We usually wake up with a burst of cortisol in the morning and also tend to have higher levels of adrenaline. When we exercise and exert ourselves, we also create more stress for ourselves. This is not a bad thing. We need stress in our lives as our bodies improve in response to it. We get fitter when we push our bodies through stress. Stress helps us figure out when something is wrong so we can take action. It gives us the energy we need to handle the challenges each day.
The problem with stress and, in particular, these two chemicals is not that they exist. It is that they sometimes are triggered for too long and at the wrong times. We can develop chronic stress and find ourselves dosed in too much cortisol and too much adrenaline too often. Furthermore, stress creates stress. The more our brains are seeped in cortisol, the more likely they are to manufacture more. We need to change the pattern.
Our brains evolved to trigger these chemicals in ways that help us. When we need energy. When we need to wake up. When we need to pay attention. When we need to learn. Indeed, adrenaline is a powerful chemical that helps us learn more effectively. When you experience an adrenaline release during and after a lesson, you are more likely to remember the lesson. So, getting yourself into a great state, using deep breathing techniques, exercising or taking a cold shower… all are options in generating an adrenaline response on purpose. You can do so to improve your learning believe it or not. (obviously be safe if you decide to do so)
The art is to make sure cortisol and adrenaline are released when we need them and when we don’t, they are not. This means learning to master calmness and ensuring that we practice stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This involves anything from self-hypnosis to mindfulness to meditation to getting a massage to petting a dog! You train yourself regularly to be calm and then at certain points in the day you allow the natural cortisol spike to happen and you stimulate the chemicals when you need to be alert and ready.
By taking control like this you are preparing yourself to be at your best. When the many challenge arise in your day, you train yourself to remain calm and deal with them so that they don’t lead you to a place of chronic stress.
So basically, stress is good for you AND bad for you. The key is how much you take and how often you take it. When you learn to activate the stress response on purpose and the relaxation response on purpose a whole new world lights up. And then… you can have the best of both worlds!