Talk of stress is everywhere today, it seems. I’ve talked about here before, too,
primarily because chronic stress is the #1 thing that gets in the way of full, engaged,
truly healthy living. The most common result that Higher Brain Living® clients see on
a regular basis is relief from stress and anxiety. It’s a big deal! Learning how to
appropriately respond to stress is probably the one skill that we all need that can
make the biggest positive impact on our lives right now.
It’s important to note the difference between productive stress and non-productive
(or toxic) stress. Productive stress is the natural, potent chemical reaction that is
triggered by the amygdala in the face of danger or extreme challenge. It allows our
minds and bodies to react quickly and powerfully and, when embraced, can help us
perform our best (and might even save our lives). In a healthy body, when the danger
or challenge has passed, the brain sets in motion another chemical reaction that
brings the body back to calm and stasis.
Stress becomes toxic when the brain is constantly reacting to non-emergency
situations as if they were emergencies, keeping the cortisol load high and never
“coming down” from a state of high alert and reaction. This chronic state of being
stressed is what we’re talking about here. This type of stress actually changes brain
structure and function, and not in good ways. (You can read more about the specific
neuronal processes involved here and here.)
So what can you do about it?
In a recent episode of MarieTV, Marie Forleo outlined a couple of simple realities
around stress. One comes from the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle: “All stress is caused by
being here, but wanting to be there.”
The classic example, of course, is being stuck in rush-hour traffic — both as reality
and as life metaphor. It’s a place no one wants to be. Here’s the thing: even if you’re
not the person honking your horn and yelling at people, your blood pressure
skyrocketing as you scream and slam the brakes, the very emotional state of actively
not wanting to be there creates a stress response in the body.
So, being present in this moment and accepting what is right now is the first step
to blunting the surge of the stress response. Weird as it seems, just looking around
and anchoring yourself in the is-ness of that moment can start to calm you. Well, here
I am. There are lots of cars for miles. I’m not moving much at all. My back is a little
stiff from sitting all day at work. My tummy is growling. I can smell car exhaust and
that bag of donut holes on the driver’s seat. Those donuts smell kind of good…
This is not about resignation. You can still take action if you choose (more on that in a
second). But there is value in embracing what is, so that if/when you decide to take
action, it comes from a place that’s clear and free on the inside.
Second, Marie points out another practical reality: In the face of stress, you have
two choices, and you’ll need to pick one.
If there is something you can do to change what’s happening, that’s option 1: you can
take action. In the rush hour metaphor — maybe you can re-route, take an exit and
stop for a cup of coffee, listen to a calming podcast or fun audio book, make a plan. If
you’re not driving in real life, a scientifically-proven method of dealing well with
stress (and another stress-busting tool that Marie advocates) is to write it all down.
If the “rush hour” in your life right now is a difficult relationship, an unsatisfying job,
health struggles — in the face of the stress that is causing, it pays to ask: Is there a
courageous action I can take that could make a difference in how I’m feeling about
If there’s nothing you can do in that moment, and your immediate health and safety
are not threatened, then you have option 2: make the best of it. In Marie’s words,
“Turn up the tunes and car dance.”
Take a second. Breathe. Decide how you want to approach this moment of being
stalled. Is it possible that you can choose contentment — maybe even joy — in this
The challenge she posed at the end of the episode is a good one: What specific
situation stresses you out on a consistent basis? What impact does it have on you and
those around you? What would change if you no longer allowed that situation to
stress you out? This is a really powerful question to ask and answer in writing.
“Thinking about it” is not enough. So be brave.
If you’ve got a specific stress that’s been dogging you for months or years, and you’d
like to get back on the path towards the life that’s waiting for you — I would be
honored to listen and show you how Higher Brain Living® could help. You can find me
Resources consulted for this piece:
Bergland, Christopher. “Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity.” Psychology Today. February
Pennebaker, James, PhD. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York: Guilford Press. 1990.
Sanders, Robert. “New evidence that chronic stress predisposes brain to mental illness.” Berkley News
online. February 11, 2014.