Stress training - surviving difficult situations

Stress training is often used in the training of astronauts at NASA or emergency workers - in this way they are taught not only to survive in difficult situations, but also to act as efficiently as possible. Psychologists call this stress inoculation. In February, Alpina Publishers published a book by Stanford University professor Kelly McGonigal, Good Stress as a Way to Become Stronger and Better. Here's a snippet in which she explains how “good” stress is different from “bad”.

How did stress get a bad rap?

In 1936, the Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye injected laboratory rats with a hormone isolated from the ovaries of a cow. The results were very unpleasant for the rodents. Bloody ulcers began to appear in the rats. Their adrenal glands were swollen, while their thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes — parts of the immune system — were shrunken. They were very sad and sick rats.

But was the cow hormone really to blame? Selye set up a control experiment by injecting some rats with saline and others with a hormone from a cow's placenta. And they showed the same symptoms. He tried extracts from the kidneys and spleen. And these rats got sick. Whatever he administered to the rats, they got sick, and with the same symptoms.

In the end, it dawned on Selye: the rats were getting sick not because of the substances they were injected, but because of what they were experiencing. They just didn't like being pricked with needles. Selye discovered that he could cause the same symptoms in rats by exposing them to various unpleasant influences: extreme heat or cold, continuous physical exertion, loud noises, and toxic substances. Within 48 hours, the rats lost muscle tone, developed ulcers in the intestines and began to suppress the immune system.

Then they died.

The science of stress was born. Selye chose the word stress to describe the state into which he introduced the rats, as well as their physiological response to this state (now we call this the stress response). But what does all this have to do with you? Before starting his research, Selye was a physician. Then he saw many patients whose bodies began to fail for no reason at all. They showed some general symptoms - loss of appetite, fever, weakness - that could not be called characteristic of specific diseases. They just looked extremely tired of life. At that moment, Selye called this condition "the syndrome of suffering."

Many years later, when Selye began to conduct his laboratory experiments, sick and dying rats reminded him of his patients. Maybe, he thought, the body is weakening from the stress that has to cope with in difficult life situations? And here Selye took a giant leap from experimenting with rats to studying human stress. He suggested that many health problems, from allergies to heart attacks, could be the result of a process he observed in rats. For Selye, this analogy remained purely theoretical; he studied laboratory animals all his life. However, this did not prevent him from building hypotheses about a person. And by making this speculative logical transference, Selye made another decision that forever changed the world's attitude to stress. He gave it a definition that went far beyond laboratory techniques for working with rats. According to Selye, stress is the body's response to any impact it has on it. That is, it is not just a reaction to painful injections, traumatic injuries or harsh laboratory conditions, but a response to any impact that requires response or adaptation. By defining stress in this way, Selye laid the foundations for the negative attitudes we see towards it today.

Selye devoted his entire subsequent career to promoting his ideas about stress, earning the nickname “the grandfather of stress science, ” and being nominated for the Nobel Prize ten times. He even wrote what could be considered the first official guide to stress management. Sometimes he received research funds from unexpected admirers. For example, tobacco manufacturers paid him to write articles on the harmful effects of stress on human health. At their request, he even gave a speech in the US Congress on how smoking helps fight the dangerous effects of stress.

But Selye's main contribution is that he first convinced the world of the dangers of stress. If you tell a colleague, “I’ll get an ulcer on this project, ” or complain to your spouse, “This stress is killing me, ” you are paying tribute to Selye's rats.

Was he wrong? Not really. If you are in the same position as his rats - you are subjected to hardship, torment and other negative influences - your body will undoubtedly pay for it. There is a lot of scientific evidence that extreme or traumatic stress can damage your health. However, Selye's definition of stress is very broad: it includes not only trauma, violence and abuse, but almost anything that can happen to you. For Selye, stress was synonymous with the body's response to life itself.

Over time, Selye realized that not every stressful experience leads to illness. He started talking about good stress (which he called eustress) and bad stress (distress). In a later interview, the scientist said: "We experience stress all the time, so the only thing you can do is try to make it useful for you and those around you." But it was too late. Thanks to Selye's work, a general view of stress as a very dangerous condition has taken root in society and the medical environment.

Hans Selye's legacy was developed through stress research conducted with laboratory animals. Until today, much of what you hear about the negative effects of stress, scientists have learned from experiments on rats. But the stress these animals experience actually has little to do with everyday human stress. If you are an experimental rat, then your day will look something like this: you will be unexpectedly electrocuted; thrown into a bucket of water and forced to swim until you start to drown; will be put in solitary confinement or, conversely, in an overcrowded cell with very little food, for which you will need to fight fiercely. It's not stress; this is the Hunger Games for rodents. […]

Is the stress response normal?

Hans Selye is blamed for the bad reputation of stress, but he is not the only culprit. There is also Walter Cannon with cats and dogs. Cannon, a physiologist at Harvard Medical School, first described the stress response in 1915 as a fight or flight. He studied how fear and anger affect the physiology of animals. In order to anger and frighten the subjects, he used two methods: he pinched the cat's mouth and nose with his fingers until it was not breathing, and put dogs and cats in the same room to fight.

According to Cannon's observations, frightened animals release adrenaline and they find themselves in a state of increased sympathetic activity. Their heart rate and breathing quicken, their muscles tense - in this way they prepare for action. Digestion and other non-essential physiological functions are slowed down or stopped. The body prepares to fight by storing energy and mobilizing the immune system. All of these changes are automatically triggered when there is a threat to life.

The fight-or-flight instinct is not unique to dogs and cats; it is present in all animals. He often saves lives - both animals and humans. That is why it is so stable in evolution, and we should be grateful to nature for writing it into our DNA.

However, many scholars point out that close combat or hasty escape are not the best strategies for the situations that modern man faces every day. How can this reaction help you survive traffic congestion or the threat of being fired? What happens if you just run away from relationships, children, work when any difficulty arises? You can't beat a late mortgage payment and disappear whenever there is a conflict in your home or work.

From this point of view, you should always suppress the stress response, except in cases of purely physical danger, such as fleeing a burning building or rescuing a drowning child. In all other situations, this is just a senseless loss of energy that interferes with successfully resisting stress. This is evidenced by the theory of inappropriateness of the stress response to a stressful situation: the responses that saved our ancestors are not suitable for you and me. A stress reaction, which has no adaptive value in the modern world, only hinders us. […]

Let's be clear: a response that supports only two coping strategies - fight or flight - really doesn't fit in with modern life. But it turns out that in reality, human stress responses are much more complex. They evolved along with humans, adapting over time to the changing world. The stress response can activate different biological systems that support different behavioral strategies. Thanks to this, you can not only run out of a burning building, but also understand problems, receive social support and learn from the experience. […]

There are several types of stress responses, each with a different biological profile that motivates different strategies for dealing with stress. For example, a goal-seeking response boosts self-confidence, motivates action, and helps build on lessons learned, while a caring and friendship response stimulates courage, engenders a desire to care for others, and strengthens social bonds. These reactions, along with the fight-or-flight response, constitute your body's complex stress responses. To understand how stress stimulates these very different responses, let's take a closer look at the biology of stress.

Stress gives you the strength to deal with adversity.

As Walter Cannon pointed out, the fight-or-flight response is triggered when your sympathetic nervous system is activated. To make you more alert and ready for action, this system forces your entire body to mobilize all available energy resources. The liver releases fat and sugar into the blood, which serve as fuel. The breathing becomes deeper so that more oxygen flows to the heart. The heart rate is accelerated so that oxygen, fat, and sugar can reach your muscles and brain faster. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol help the muscles and brain use this energy more efficiently. As a result, you are ready to overcome any obstacles.

It is this response to stress that provides a person with exceptional physical capabilities in special situations. In the news, you can often find reports of the incredible power that a person acquires in stressful situations - for example, the story of two teenage girls from Lebanon, Oregon, who managed to lift a 1.5-ton tractor, under which their father was trapped. “I don’t know how I was able to lift it, it was very heavy, ” one of the girls told reporters. "But we just took it and raised it." Many people experience similar experiences under severe stress. When something very important is at stake, the body uses all its energy resources to do what is needed.

The energy that stress gives you not only helps the body but also stimulates the brain. Adrenaline sharpens the senses. Pupils dilate to let in more light, and hearing sharpens. In this case, the brain processes signals from the senses faster. Superfluous thoughts are turned off, less important tasks temporarily lose their relevance. Attention is concentrated, you absorb and process more information.

A chemical cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone and dopamine kicks in. This is one of the reasons why some people like to experience stress - it gives them pleasant excitement. The combination of the above substances increases your self-confidence. You can be more focused and strive for something that gives you satisfaction. Some scientists call this side of stress "excitement and awe." Such sensations are experienced by skydivers, parachutists, lovers. If you get the chills down your spine from gambling or trying hard work on time, then you know what it is.

When it comes to true survival, these physiological changes are most pronounced, and you may have the classic fight-or-flight response. But if your life is not directly threatened, the body and brain switch to another state - the reaction of striving for the goal. Similar to the fight-or-flight response, this stress response gives you strength and helps you cope with challenging conditions. The heartbeat quickens, the adrenaline level soars up, the muscles and brain get more fuel, and "good mood hormones" are released into the blood. But this reaction differs from the previous one in several important ways. You feel focused, but not fearful. The level of stress hormones is also different, in particular, the level of DHEA is increased, which helps to recover faster from stress and assimilate useful experiences. The result is an increase in your stress response growth index - that is, there is a favorable ratio of stress hormones that determines how harmful or beneficial stress is for you.

People who are completely immersed in what they are doing and experience pleasure from it show clear signs of a goal-seeking response. Artists, athletes, surgeons, gamers, musicians, completely surrendering to their favorite pastime, experience just such a reaction to stress. The best in these fields of activity do not at all remain cool under the pressure of difficult circumstances; it would be more accurate to say that they have a stressful goal-seeking response. It gives them access to mental and physical resources, which in turn provide increased confidence, concentration and performance.

Stress helps communication and stimulates social connections

Your stress response doesn't just provide you with energy. In many situations, she also forces you to connect with other people. This side of stress is controlled primarily by the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is widely known as the "love molecule" and "hug hormone" because it is actually produced by the pituitary gland when you hug someone. However, in reality, oxytocin's functions are much more complex. It is a neurohormone that fine-tunes social instincts in your brain. Its main function is to create and strengthen social attachments, which is why it stands out in hugs, as well as during intercourse and breastfeeding. Elevated oxytocin levels make you gravitate towards people. It generates a desire for personal contact - through touch, SMS or meeting over a glass of beer. Plus, oxytocin helps the brain better understand what other people are thinking and feeling. It enhances empathy and intuition. With high oxytocin levels, you are more likely to trust and help people you care about. Oxytocin makes the brain more receptive to social contact and thereby enhances the warm feeling you get when caring for others.

But the functions of oxytocin are not limited to the social sphere. It is also a hormone of courage. Oxytocin suppresses the fear response in the brain - an instinct that makes you freeze or run. This hormone not only prompts you to seek someone's hug; he makes you brave.

Oxytocin is as much a part of the stress response as adrenaline, which makes your heart pound. During stress, the pituitary gland releases oxytocin to stimulate social connections. This means stress makes you better without the additional investment in personal growth and socialization training.