Your Stress Responses and the Wisdom of the Body

In our last post, we discussed genetic variations that result in our having either a “worrier” or a “warrior” brain. We also mentioned that worriers can handle stress effectively, even function at the level of Navy Seals, if they are properly trained. Sufficiently trained, worriers can deal with demanding situations as well as warriors.

What makes this possible? Despite the bodily stress reactions we have that are inborn, how we interpret those reactions can dramatically shift how we react.

In the early 1960s, two psychologists, Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer showed that cueing people about how to view their experiences can dramatically shift how they actually react.

Their studies were complex, but, basically, they assessed how the effects of a drug that produced high arousal (standard pharmaceutical adrenalin) changed, depending on the context in which the drug was administered.

If people injected with pharmaceutical adrenalin, which produces a typical stress response with rapid heart rate, sweating, and so forth), were in a situation in which a stooge feigned anger, they were more likely to be angry. If the stooge feigned euphoria, they became more silly and playful.

Anything that changes how we view our bodily reactions has the power to determine whether we end up distressed and defeated or end up feeling euphoric, or heaven knows what else. The point is that the physiological reaction is not the boss. It has a vote, but it’s not the boss.

So if you have powerful feelings and symptoms when you face stress, you can still fall back on your thought patterns to use that power to support you.

Bodily responses to life’s demands commonly provide protection from threats. So getting rid of those reactions is not necessarily a good path to resilience. Important research shows that those who are resilient have physiological responses to stress as intense as those who are less resilient.

Walter Cannon, the scientist who first identified the “fight or flight” stress response did so in a book he entitled “The Wisdom of the Body”.  Wisdom? Can it be that these hated feelings we try to fight off when taking a difficult test, walking on stage to give a speech, etc. are based on bodily “wisdom”?

For example, isn’t your heart pounding rapidly bad for you?

Commonly it is not. Your heart pounds when you exercise vigorously, have sex or ride on a rollercoaster, and we don’t think of that as bad for you. The heart’s reaction during positive states can actually be more intense than it is during negative ones.

It can be bad for you if you have serious heart disease, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for most of us. Exercise that pushes the heart to be fast and effective is commonly recommended to make us healthier.

The physiological reactions themselves can change depending on how we interpret them. For example, when we interpret something as manageable, our heart’s efficiency tends to increase and our blood vessels relax. When we view them as a threat beyond our control, the opposite happens.

Harvard Professor Jeremy Jamieson and his colleagues have done valuable research confirming that how we appraise or interpret our bodily reactions to demanding situations can determine how well we perform under stress.

For example, in one study, in a high-stakes testing situation half of the test-takers were told before the test that stress reactions we have during important, difficult tests predict better, not worse performance. They were also told that they should not feel concerned about their body’s reactions, but instead should remind themselves that this arousal could be helping them do well.

The group taught to see stress reactions as beneficial scored 65 points higher than controls!

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