ChaiSpotlight:Rifky Blau

Hi, I am Rifky Blau, social worker and Family and Hospital Services Coordinator at Chai Lifeline Canada. I am often the first point of contact between a family in crisis and Chai Lifeline as well as a friendly face at Sick Kids Hospital weekly. I also have the privilege of facilitating monthly support group for moms of kids living with an acute or chronic medical condition, where often the focus is “Dealing with STRESS”.

Today I want to propose a novel and controversial idea.

STRESS ISN’T SOMETHING WE NEED TO ERADICATE. STRESS CAN BE GOOD FOR US.

Before you stop reading and declare me insane 🙂 let me make my case.

We have been taught to believe that stress is bad for our health and can be a pre-cursor to obesity, dementia, and heart disease. So we are all stressed out about stress.

What if we changed our minds about stress and we decided it was good for us? Could we then change our body’s response to a stressful event?

There have been many studies done where subjects have been exposed to stress by being asked to speak publically, solve difficult math equations or memorize long strings of words. Over and over again each study concludes that the participants who seemed stressed by the tasks did not have dangerous levels of cortisol or adrenalin in their bodies. And when they were followed over a decade they did not develop chronic diseases. It seems that a moderate level of stress has no health consequences and may even have some benefits. Several studies done in the United States have shown that a moderate level of stress is actually good for our health and longevity. The conclusion by many researchers is that stress isn’t what is killing us, but the perception that we are very stressed out is what is doing the most harm.

“The Upside of Stress” is a recent book by Kelly McGonigal (2013) where the author reveals a similar approach. She says that stress is the body’s way of energizing a person to meet the challenge up ahead. Here are two examples; 1. When your heart is pumping fast (we view it as our body freaking out and we worry about an impending heart attack) your body is actually sending oxygen to fuel our organs and limbs hence improving your performance levels. 2. Breathing faster brings more oxygen to your brain which allows you to plan more strategically.

My goal today is to make you better at stress; to help you view stress as a way your body is helping you rise to a challenge instead of something that is slowly killing you. If you believe it, you can live with moderate stress and be healthy.

STRESS MAKES YOU SOCIAL

Stress causes the body to release oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone” which encourages you to surround yourself with the support and caring of others This is what my team and I do each and everyday not just for our Warriors, but for each member of their family.

STRESS CAN MAKE YOU HEALTHIER

Stress also forces the body to release a sudden flow of immune cells helping us to heal from a traumatic injury. Imagine this! Your body has a built in mechanism for stress resilience. It knows how to recover when it needs to.

So is stress harmful or helpful? BOTH

Long term stress isn’t healthy for anyone. But what if your child or spouse is ill? What if you are faced with a long-term crisis? Researchers suggest that cutting the stress into smaller and more manageable chunks will keep you physically healthier and increase your ability to deal with the crisis. None of us will ever be able to avoid all stress but small spurts of it can improve our focus, energy, and performance. It is up to us and our beliefs and attitudes about stress.

 The things that give us the most joy paradoxically give us the most stress. Relationships, parenting, and careers can bring moments of stress coupled with tremendous growth opportunities. Our attitudes about those stressors and our body’s reactions to them can make all of the difference between living a healthier, longer life or struggling with obesity, dementia and a heart condition.

So how can we EMBRACE STRESS?

  • View stress as a source of energy. Instead of focusing on being calm, embrace your beating heart and its ability to help you perform better.
  • Connect to others. Use your body’s natural oxytocin release by looking for others who help fuel your confidence and give you the courage to help you handle your stress better.
  • View stress as a chance to grow. See stress as an opportunity which leads away from depression and anxiety toward resilience, courage, and confidence.

The studies used in this blog entry are compiled form the University of Wisconsin, University of California and Stanford University. I can be reached at rblau@chailifeline.org for exact references.

This blog is based on a TED talk by psychologist Kelly McGonigal entitled “How to make stress your friend.

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