Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] ‘Stress’ is the beginning of wonderful things

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] ‘Stress’ is the beginning of wonderful things
'How you think about your own stresses can work for you or against you'

The only thing in over abundant supply in these times is “stress.” It is given to us by the novel coronavirus, by the agencies tasked to lead the response to it, by those of us who actively resist the health guidelines, by those who take advantage of the health crisis, and also by those who add to the crisis by creating other kinds of crises. If “stress” were a commodity, we could just make it “export quality” and sell it to those who may want it. 

But exporting stress is even more unfeasible than exporting waste. Some countries would be willing to take waste for the right price. But the “perfect storm” of stresses make up a unique suite, given the political, cultural and historical elements, that it is not exportable at all. We can inform people about them or write them down through journalism and literature but we all know what happens there when we do that.  So what are we left with? Is fatigue, drowning, and buckling the only suite of responses we can muster for this perfect storm of stresses? 

Biology is the last thing we think of as our refuge when we think of how to navigate through the perfect storm. But think again, as it may be how we can start to get to have meaningful and impactful responses to it even while we are caught in it. 

Our bodies, when experiencing stress, involuntarily go on a “fight, flee, or freeze” response. Any of those “f” responses would mean that your heart will beat faster and your breathing will be short and fast, which get more oxygen quickly to your brain, putting your senses and executory brain on heightened alert. This is a useful response because it signals that what you are experiencing is not in your everyday playbook, so it is making you think differently to increase your chances of coming up with a response that will work. 

But if this were so, then why has medical science established in a host of studies that stress is strongly linked with heart disease, inflammation, and other diseases, and also shortens lives?

Because stress really does all those things. But what is not well-known is that your biology also responds another way if you do not think that stress is harming you. One of the landmark studies that provided evidence for this revealed to us that how you think about your own stresses can work for you or against you. It revealed that people who did not really think their stresses were harming them did not have the tell-tale signs of illnesses that were caused by prolonged bodily responses to stress.

Your stressful pandemic life will take on a new day when you listen to the Ted Talk of Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. She has turned from demonizing stress in her practice, when she realized that based on studies such as the one previously mentioned, those who did not think that stress will harm them did not get sick or die compared with the ones who looked at stress as making them sick. 

She revealed a few mechanisms as to how this might be happening and one of them was when people started to think that their bodily response to stress was helpful, their blood vessels started to relax even when their senses were heightened.

One of the most remarkable things that she revealed in her talk is a hormone that is released when we are stressed, which is the key. It is oxytocin – what is usually called the “love” hormone, because it is released in a mom when she delivers her baby, when we behold our “beloved” or any of the ones we care about. Stress moves us to “care” and to be “social” because reaching out and connecting will expand the story of possibilities of where this is all coming from and how we can respond. The kind of systemic stresses we have now are not the kind we can navigate by ourselves, so scaling for a response is crucial. 

This is why organizing ourselves, in whatever form, within pandemic health parameters, to address the many things that are stressing us, is a key to turn stress around and make it work for us without it making us sick. McGonigal said that that the cardiopulmonary profile of people who are able to flip their view of stress into “caring” is the same as the picture of an actual heart experiencing “joy and courage.”

To me, this explains the courageous people across sectors, incomes, and persuasions, who experience the same stresses we all are experiencing, yet, are able to rise above it, joyfully smile and make the impossible happen – and even be a solution to other people’s stresses. 

“Stress” is an equal opportunity possessor. It will possess you no matter your standing in life. BUT how you see stress may be the only way to gett a hold of it in your own body and turn it around to make it work for you. Reach out and do something that matters not just to you but to others. That is how embracing your own fear naturally births your own courage. And courage, by the way, is exportable. History bears it so. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at