By Melissa Frieswick on Mon, Mar 15, 2021
Got stress? From a tight work deadline, to trying to balance running a Zoom call while helping a child with online classes, to the loss of a loved one, human beings are no stranger to stress. It’s part of our everyday life and an eternal balancing act as we face what our future has in store for us. Unfortunately, the inability to handle that stress can lead to major life problems, from decreased productivity in the workplace to more serious health issues like anxiety and depression.
The brain is about safety first; it’s our basic survival instinct to keep us alive. Stress can enhance our skills, but too much of it can lead to chronic stress, which can reduce our key brain capacities, leading to mental and physical health issues.
But the more we understand about stress and how it impacts our mental health and personal productivity, the more we can master it. “Stress is the core, whether we like it or not. We need to find and befriend it,” explains Total Brain founder and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Evian Gordon. Knowing how to use and master stress is the key.
Recently Dr. Gordon interviewed Dr. Heidi Hanna, New York Times bestselling author and Chief Energy Officer of Synergy Brain Fitness, on the Total Brain podcast episode "5 Things You Didn’t Know About Stress."
Here are five core insights Dr. Hanna shared during the podcast based on her research on hundreds of stress experts:
Fight or Flight: A Physiological Stress Response
Stress has been around since the dawn of humanity, but it wasn’t widely talked about until the early 1900’s when Harvard University physiologist Walter Cannon first coined the term ‘homeostasis,’ which is the body’s ability to adapt to external circumstances to maintain balance, Dr. Hanna explained.
However, perhaps more notable was Cannon’s identification of the fight-or-flight stress response system, which is triggered by hormones released to prepare your body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety. “He really understood that energy was being mobilized in reaction to a threat,” Dr. Hanna said. “It’s really helpful to understand that as we unpack stress, this is what happens when there is truly a threat. It’s a fast-acting stress reaction system of fight-or-flight.”
Understanding the physiological and chemical cause of stress, employees can use a simple breathing technique called Resonant Breathing to suppress the fight-flight response. Breathing at a rate of six breaths per minute activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the body’s fight-flight response and puts it into a calm, focused, and flexible state of mind.
Positive vs. Negative Stress: It’s About Timing
Known as the first to use the term stress, endocrinologist Dr. Hans Selye is often called “the Godfather of stress.” Dr. Hanna further explained, “It had previously been used in different areas of science, but not when it came to the human system.” When experimenting with hormone injections in small animals in the 1930’s, Dr. Selye noticed the animals reacted to “the trauma of the injection, not actually the hormone itself.”
From this, Dr. Selye developed the stress response system, which he called the General Adaptation Syndrome (or GAS) and has three phases of stress: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. “They all have different impacts on the brain and body,” Dr. Hanna said. “The acute stress reaction tends to be more helpful, enhancing our focus and attention…But it’s the more chronic, ongoing, lingering type of stress reaction that causes most of the damage.”
Over time, researchers learned high levels of stress can be toxic on the body. “It really has to do with the timing, the type, and the frequency of the stress we are experiencing,” Dr. Hanna continued.
“With these phases, it’s hard not to see stress become anxiety and then chronic, moving towards depression,” said Dr. Gordon. Even in the early years of research, these scientists foresaw some of the biggest health implications of toxic stress. “This is why it’s so important for us to stop stress in its tracks - in the moment - so we can stop the cycles of decline,” Dr. Gordon added.
From these early researchers, we’ve learned that stress reduction is fundamental to reversing mental health conditions. Integrative tools like Break Stress that use multiple approaches can help employees manage stress and prevent the spiral into chronic stress levels.
The Stress Tipping Point: It’s Personal
Stress can be good. It can motivate you to work harder, run faster, jump higher, but only to a point. Then it works against you. That’s what researchers Robert Yerkes and John Dodson discovered about stress in the early 1900’s.
The Yerkes-Dodson stress performance curve looks like an inverted “U,” showing stress as a type of stimulation or arousal until a tipping point is reached. More interestingly, this tipping point is personal to each individual, which revolutionized the performance side of how we use and deal with stress.
“We each have a point where our level of stress is optimal for our performance. Studying peak performers, they embrace stress. They deal with it at critical moments and find a level that works for them,” said Dr. Gordon. “The key to success is for each individual to find and manage their peak stress level.”
Dr. Hanna added that the Yerkes-Dodson model is also helpful because it represents the rhythms and patterns of life. “We have heartbeats and brainwaves and blood sugar. Everything has a pulse to it,” she said. “Often, it’s not the stress that is the problem. It’s the lack of recovery or the lack of recharging our energy.”
Dr. Gordon echoed, “This emphasizes the importance of not just how we deal with stress, but giving ourselves time to recover from stress. It’s a wonderful concept moving into the insights of how to use stress very effectively.”
Increasing presence in the moment is key to balancing stress levels and unlocking peak performance. Meditation, breathing exercises and tools like Body, Breath, Thoughts can help employees increase awareness and reach higher levels of focus and productivity. To learn more about finding out what works for you to manage stress, download our ebook “Stress Mastery: The Gateway to Improved Mental Health.”
Appraisal and Coping: It’s About Perception
While earlier research unlocked the physiological aspects of stress, during the 1970’s researchers like Richard Lazarus began exploring the psychology of the stress response. He discovered that appraisal or “the way we perceive circumstances that we are dealing with has a big impact on stress levels,” said Dr. Hanna.
Lazarus’s appraisal framework included four types of perceived stress: benign, challenging, harmful, and threatening. He also was the first to make the distinction between "problem-focused coping" and "emotion-focused coping" styles.
“Looking at the research on resilience or even post traumatic growth, the people who have the best chance at using stress to fuel some sort of positive adaptation are those who use problem-focused coping because they are taking action in some way,” Dr. Hanna explained.
When dealing with stress, it’s important for employees to stay positive. To experience greater stress mastery, they also need to take action and build healthy brain habits that rewire the brain by using tools like Thought Tamer or Positive Affirmations.
“It is fundamentally important to take small steps and celebrate small wins, said Dr. Gordon. “The dopamine release we get when we take action matters.”
Stress: Taking in The Whole Picture
Bruce McEwen’s work took a 360 degree look at stress. He looked at how “stress gets under the skin, starting with biology and then bringing in psychology,” explained Dr. Hanna. “He also looked at early life experiences, environmental stressors, and trauma or abuse, and how these can create the context for other components of stress.”
McEwen also coined the term “allostatic load,” which is the accumulation of wear and tear on the body when one experiences chronic stress. Going back to the concept of homeostasis where the body is constantly bringing itself back into balance, allostatic load is the load being placed on the system during this process. When this load becomes too much for an individual it goes from being adaptive to maladaptive.
Dr. Hanna summarized, “All of these research insights are really fascinating. I believe we’ll continue to build upon this research as we better understand the personalization of stress.”
Regarding personalization, “Once people get personal insight, see their threshold, and pick the solutions that work for them, they can convert from negative to positive thoughts,” Dr. Gordon said, “And, that really changes it all.”
Living, Learning and Coping
The way each person experiences and copes with stress is different, but what we have learned from these five key stress research highlights is that stress is based on physiological, psychological, timing and holistic factors. This is important as “stress can limit our brain capacities, like memory and focus,” Dr. Gordon said. “In fact, stress is the doorway to all mental health conditions.”
Stress can be good, bad, and ugly, so it’s beneficial for your employees to understand stress and its impact on their mental and physical health. It’s also important they have access to personalized self-care tools that build brain habits to handle life’s unexpected, stressful surprises. It’s that kind of awareness and action taking that leads to change.
As an employer, this can improve mental health outcomes in your workplace, which can increase productivity and help your employees achieve their peak performance.
“I think the reality is stress itself is really a good thing. I often say stressing is a blessing when we know how to use it,” said Dr. Hanna.
If you would like to hear Dr. Gordon and Dr. Hanna’s full conversation, listen to the Total Brain podcast episode “5 Things That You Didn’t Know About Stress.”
For additional insights and lessons on the impact of stress on focus and memory, download our latest eBook, “Stress: The Great Derailer of Focus and Memory.” If you’re an HR or benefits professional charged with improving employee mental health, schedule a meeting to discuss how Total Brain can help.