New science changing the correct way to deal with stress
By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Glastonbury - posted Mon., Dec. 16, 2013
In order to keep more “jolly” in the holidays, people at the Glastonbury Senior Center heard some advice about how to turn stress around and make it work for you, instead of against you. It's not as simple as "don't worry, be happy," and there is actual science to it, said David Steinberg, MSW intern from the University of Connecticut who is working at Glastonbury Youth and Family Services in what he calls his "dream internship."
Steinberg said that the human brain has tripled in size over the short period of the last 2 million years, and that in particular, the pre-frontal cortex has evolved into a very good "experience simulator." Our brains, he said, are very good at imagining what things could be like.
"People at Ben and Jerry's don't have to try out liver and onion ice cream," he said. "They know, in their head, that they are going to say 'yuck.'"
However, that leads to a very common human condition known as "impact bias," which causes people to predict that things in the future are going to be worse than they actually are. "We predict breakups are going to be worse," Steinberg said. "We predict talking to someone we haven't talked to in a while is going to be a whole lot worse."
The answer lies in taking more control of our thoughts, and synthesizing happiness. Natural happiness, Steinberg explained, is when we get what we want. Synthetic happiness is what people create from a negative experience.
Steinberg's presentation included video lectures from Dan Gilbert and Dr. Kelly McGonigle which further explained the points that people can take control of their thoughts and emotions.
"We see that negative experiences have far less intensity and far less duration than people expect them to have," Gilbert said, adding that three months after most traumatic events, people are no less happy than they were prior to that event, all because happiness can be synthesized. Gilbert added that people generally believe that synthetic happiness is not as authentic, but the opposite is true.
"Synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring," he said.
"You can take control of your thoughts," Steinberg said. "We have the ability to synthesize our happiness. For some people it's hard, but we can push to open our thoughts."
Much of sythesizing happiness is looking at stress in a new way, and the benefits to doing so can be good for one's health. Getting a good night's rest, setting realistic goals and understanding other peoples expectations, and engaging in pleasurable activities are all stress-reducers, as is volunteering.
"When we volunteer or give to charity, it helps our bodies cope," Steinberg said, adding that volunteering for two hours per week has the same effect as a dose of valium.
Practicing mindfulness is another stress-reducer, and it can be as simple as focusing on one's breathing. "You come into the here and now, and you become at peace with that," Steinberg said. "You can view things as objective realities, to where things just are what they are."
The body's response to stress, McGonigle said, is usually interpreted as anxiety, or signs that one is not coping very well with pressure. "What if you view them instead as signs that your body is energized and preparing you to meet this challenge," McGonigle said, adding that test subjects who were told that stress response is helpful responded to stress tests, were less stressed-out and anxious, and also evidenced a change in physical response.
"Their blood vessels stayed relaxed," she said. "Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks like what happens in states of joy and courage. Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90's. What you think about stress matters.
Much of that difference is due to oxytocin, a neuro-hormone that fine-tunes the brain's social instincts, and primes people to do things that create social relationships, including desiring physical contact, and seek out relationships with other people. Oxytocin is released during a stress response and is forcing you to seek support, McGonigle said.
"Your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you," she said, adding that oxytocin also acts on the body, including the heart. "Oxytocin helps the heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage," she said. "Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection."
"If you have stress, and you view it as positive, you're repairing your heart," Steinberg said. "You're going to do pro-social behaviors, you're going to connect with people, and release oxytocin."