Is Stress Making You Sick? Fight It By Retraining Your Brain

Is Stress Making You Sick? Fight It By Retraining Your Brain

Nine days after losing his job at Stanford Medical School, Don Joseph Goewey was diagnosed with a brain tumor. With six weeks to wait before his surgery, Goewey spent his days consumed with worry.

Married with four kids, the family’s mortgage depended on his income. Goewey’s doctors warned he might never be able to work again, leading him to fear the worst. He imagined his family destitute, losing everything he had worked for. His fears consumed him for weeks, leading him to question what was worse — the debilitating stress or the possible outcomes of surgery.

Goewey recalled a simple process he had learned from Carl Rogers, PhD, the father of humanistic psychology. First, he became keenly aware of his fearful thoughts and what the perception of doom and gloom did to him. Second, he acknowledged the thoughts were inside him and not necessarily a result of the world around him. Third, he asked himself what his experience became when he didn’t believe he would be impoverished. The answer was that he calmed down. He relaxed, felt relieved, and eventually reached a point of peace.

Stress wreaks havoc on our minds and bodies.

Stress is often a result of what is happening inside us, as a result of our worries, fears and doubts, rather than what is happening to us. In “The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worrying from Stopping You,” Robert Leahy, PhD, cites a study in which subjects were asked to write down their frets and possible outcomes over a two-week period. Remarkably, 85 percent of the time, those fears never came to fruition. Even when outcomes were negative, people handled them better than predicted 79 percent of the time. We worry about terrible troubles that often don’t arise.

“Even if the tiger is only in our minds, or in the form of a demanding boss or toddler, our bodies still react as if we are fighting a real, live tiger,” says Diane Amstutz, PhD, psychologist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center for Pain Management. Cortisol and adrenaline flood our systems to produce the natural fight or flight response. When we are in a continuous state of stress, it inhibits our ability to cope and creates a vicious cycle.

“Not only are there mental effects of stress, like depression, anxiety and bipolarity, but we are finding more and more physical effects are directly related, such as high blood pressure and increased incidence of diabetes,” says Dr. Anjali Bhagra, associate professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, whose current research topics include stress reduction and healthy aging through optimism.

Financial and occupational woes are leading causes of stress, which often compounds and spreads to other areas of one’s life, significantly impacting physical health. A Princeton study found that financial stress can lower IQ by 40 percent, while a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology determined the more problems people experienced at work, the more they criticized their spouses at home. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that those who experienced outbursts of anger increased their risk of heart attack by five-fold and stroke by three-fold. Yale University found the inability to cope with stress can lead to poor outcomes post-heart attack. Mounting evidence points to the cumulative effects stress has on aging and countless medical conditions. So what can we do? 

1. Retrain your brain for healthier function.

A popular analysis of London taxi drivers and bus drivers demonstrates that you can grow and change areas of your brain. By searching for directions and scouting new routes, taxi drivers increased the part of their brain that improves spatial memory and navigation skills. Bus drivers, who are confined to the same routes, did not experience the same benefit.

“95 percent of people I come across aren’t aware that we can change our brains,” Bhagra says. “We can make biological changes by how we pay attention.” Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the concept that describes the brain’s ability to mold and change throughout life. For example, new languages can be learned into adulthood and stroke patients can regain skills by forming new connections in the brain.

We can retrain our brains to respond to stress in more positive and productive ways. “Stress is not going to go away. It’s only going to get worse,” Bhagra says. “We need to spin it from a threat to an opportunity.” The challenge is to find ways to use your natural stress response for growth — as a friend rather than an enemy.

“We will have anger, resentment and envy,” says Bhagra. “But attention training teaches us not get stuck in that loop for too long.” Acknowledge what you are feeling, but then shift your body from overdrive to a more relaxed state, just as Goewey did.

Don Joseph Goewey
Don Joseph Goewey

In fact, Goewey was able to maintain such a positive attitude despite his trying circumstances that the head of another department offered him a job. Goewey credits his mind-body connection with helping him to emerge from his brain surgery with an optimal outcome. That was 30 years ago. Today Goewey is the managing partner of ProAttitude, a human performance firm focused on combatting workplace woes, and the author of “The End of Stress: Four Steps to Rewiring Your Brain.”

“Stress is not something you should one day do something about,” says Goewey. “You need to attend to it everyday. It’s as important as if your doctor diagnosed you with a serious illness, because stress is the cause of serious illness.”

When you’re in the heat of the moment, it helps to think about whether the stressful situation will matter in five years. “If the answer is yes, then make it 10 years,” Bhagra says. Think about what you can learn from the situation instead of letting the stress of it dominate your thinking. “Stress is your assessment that this situation is overwhelming you. It is your fear that you won’t deal with it well,” Goewey says. “Save yourself at least the stress reaction. It can derail you by debilitating the higher brain function you need to solve the problem.”

2. Use micro-moments to make a big impact.

It is important to actively engage in stress release. “You know what stress feels like in your body,” says Amstutz. “Headaches, stomach pains, jitters? Stop what you’re doing and allow yourself a micro-bit of self care.” It doesn’t have to be a run at the gym or a day at the spa. Just a walk in the sunshine will do. Talk to a friend or colleague. Realize you don’t have to go it alone. Outside feedback can help you see your situation from a different perspective.

Try to include pleasurable activities in every day — even the busy ones. Do you love knitting or reading? “Some people might call these distractions,” says Amstutz. “But you’ll find you get much more done if you don’t push yourself until you drop. Take care of your needs and you’ll still have the same amount of time you would as if you spent the day worrying about your situation.”

“Every day commit yourself to a better mental state for a better quality of life,” Goewey recommends. The more time you spend practicing calming techniques and quieting stress, the better you get at it. “The prefrontal cortex is online more, stimulating growth of new nerve and brain cells, creating new networks. Your potential has expanded,” Goewey says. “It’s either expanding throughout your life or it’s shrinking, and that’s almost entirely based on how stressed you are.”

3. Employ positive reflection to get through difficult times.

“Sprinkle micro-meditative moments throughout your day,” Bhagra says. When you wake up, think of five things you are grateful for before you even get out of bed. It rewires your brain and resets the tone for the day to empowered and positive. Send a gratitude text or email to some one you know. Ritual is key to enabling this practice.

Practicing daily gratitude and maintaining positivity can be challenging when facing significant life struggles. “Being in a difficult situation, with sick parents, special needs children or facing divorce, is tough,” says Goewey. “But a negative attitude can make it 10 times harder.”

Amstutz, who coaches patients with disabilities, asks you to think about what you are saying to yourself about your situation. Is it encouraging and helpful or is it harmful? Focus on what is possible for you.

“Should is a very dangerous word,” she warns. “I often respond with who said you should?” Patients as young as 8 years old understand they can think differently. Realize you don’t have to like your situation, but you can handle it. “It’s very liberating when you understand you have some control,” Amstutz says.

Often we come out of trying times with higher meaning that we did not imagine before. We appreciate our health or everyday joys in a new way. It’s important to remember that no difficult time is permanent,” Bhagra says. “And there’s always sunshine after rain.”

A woman whose mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s told Goewey she was stressed watching her mother decline, feeling like she couldn’t do anything to help. He responded that the one thing she could do was to make loving her mother the primary way of interacting with her. “If you’re beating yourself up feeling stressed because you have no control over the progress of an illness, you’ll wear yourself down,” Goewey says. “Love is an incredibly positive force. The only thing we completely control in any situation is our attitude.” Renowned psychiatrist Karl Menninger said, “Attitude is more important than facts.” Attitude determines how you experience facts.

“If you retrain your attention, you’ll have better brain volume, prevent yourself from developing dementia and live happier and healthier,” Bhagra says. Rewiring happens with ritual. Make small changes in your day and experience the lasting effects they can have over your lifetime.

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