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Don't Beat Stress... Meet Stress

Updated on January 7, 2015

Doctors can’t tell you much about migraines. According to Healthline.com, a partial list of triggers includes lack of sleep, caffeine, foods, food additives, hunger, dehydration, alcohol, strong odors, bright lights, loud sounds, weather change, exercise, hormones and -- my personal favorite -- stress.

My own headaches are called cluster-migraines. I generally go two to three years between bouts, until accumulated stress and tension go to work on my neck and shoulders, affecting circulation and renewing a constant cycle of nighttime attacks of fiendish intensity. At their best, migraines will interrupt my sleep several times a night. At their worst, they shoot burning needles of agony into my brain for 14 hours straight until I finally pass out from exhaustion.

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Too much, not enough

I’ve dealt with migraines for about a quarter century now. During my last series, a new neurosurgeon put me on steroids to relax my muscles, a regimen that prevents headache Armageddon while allowing the cycle to slowly run its course.

It’s working, mostly, for which I’m enormously grateful. But not without a curious side-effect.

Now I’m too relaxed.

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Push back

I know. It sounds weird. But it also feels weird, like the feeling you get when you lift an empty pitcher you thought was full of water, push open the solid oak door that turns out to be hollow pine, or trip over the step at the top of the stairs that isn’t actually there. My rubbery muscles respond too easily, with not quite enough control, without their familiar discipline. I reach down at the gym, and my fingertips press effortlessly against the floor as if I’m an elastic band that’s been over-stretched too many times.

Ultimately, it’s disconcerting to push against the world and not have the world push back.

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Would you believe?

In fact, research has come to bear this out. In a Ted Talk given in June 2013, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal cited a University of Wisconsin study concluding that, although stress can increase the risk of dying by a factor of 43%, that is only true among people who believe that stress is bad for them. In contrast, people who believe in the benefits of stress are less likely to die than people who experience little stress themselves.

Over the eight years tracking death rates, 182,000 people died not from stress but because they believed that stress is bad for you, making the belief that stress is bad the 15th highest cause of death in America, above skin cancer, AIDS, and homicide.

The elevated heart rate and accelerated breathing brought on by stress are familiar to all of us. But according to a 2012 study by Harvard University, the cardiovascular system reacts differently depending on one’s outlook toward stress. If we believe that stress is bad, our blood vessels constrict, slowing the flow of blood and increasing pressure that can lead to damage. But if we believe that stress is healthy, our blood vessels remain relaxed so that oxygen circulates more quickly and energizes our responses.

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The "Cuddle Hormone"

Paradoxically, this second model is similar to the physiological response associated with joy and courage. And the difference in our response to stress can make a difference of decades in life expectancy.

How so? Largely because of oxytocin -- the “cuddle hormone.” Of course, stress produces adrenaline to engage our “flight or fight” response. But it also triggers the pituitary gland to pump out oxytocin, which fine tunes brain’s neural instinct for social interaction, empathy, concern and support for people we care about, and it drives us to seek support from our natural allies even as increasing adrenaline levels prepare for combat against our natural enemies.

Oxytocin is natural anti-inflammatory that helps heart cells heal -- but only when we respond to its urging to connect with others. When we do, this stress-produced hormone becomes the built-in mechanism for stress relief.

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A world of contradictions

But the misconception that stress is bad contains a more insidious danger. Stress avoidance has become the defining objective of our culture. As a result, we impose limits upon ourselves that stifle creativity, accomplishment, and personal relationships.

We live in a world of countless contradictions: birth and death, growth and decay, fire and ice, health and sickness, strength and weakness, suffering and joy. We live with ceaseless struggle amidst opposing forces that we can never master.

And we find ourselves in a state of perpetual conflict: we are creatures of the spirit, of lofty goals, of divine ideals, of noble sentiments trapped in bodies of flesh and sinew, racked by base impulses and appetites, tormented by primal physical lust and petty egoism. Each of us is an isolated creature desperate to connect with others who remain forever apart from us. We are creatures of willful self-indulgence in perpetual collision with the higher callings of the conscience, lost in an endless battle between momentary pleasures, long-term goals, and the contradictions of moral uncertainty.

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Conflicted

But now consider that this is itself the nature of our world: without friction, nothing moves; without tension, nothing is resolved; without challenge and crisis, nothing is achieved. Our desperate attempt to flee from stress condemns us to a life of lonely, colorless mediocrity.

But then, we’re conflicted about conflict itself. We push ourselves at the gym, on the treadmill, lifting weights, and doing crunches. We push ourselves at work, putting in overtime and pushing the envelop to advance our careers. But somehow we retreat into the fantasy that life should be free from stress, no matter how much we know better.

The real heroes

So embrace the reality of pressure, the force that raises mountains, carves valleys, and forges the most exquisite gems. What works in the natural world works even more so within ourselves.

And remember that no matter how much the world lauds the heroes that wage war on the field of human conflict, the greatest hero is the one who rises to the challenges that arise within himself, fighting against the base impulses of his lower nature, resisting the tepid or unreasonable expectations of others, and rallying himself to seize hold of the of the moral promptings of his conscience and the higher callings of his soul.

Who is mighty? asks the Talmud. The one who conquers his inclinations.

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