Tag Archives: stress

This is Your Brain on Stress!

Why is it that some of us perform better under pressure while others are more likely to buckle under the load? Was it how the person was raised? Were they taught to believe in themselves? Did their parents and teachers push them to keep trying when they encountered obstacles?

We tend to assume that one’s ability to work well under stress is a function of character. But that’s not what brain research is telling us. It may be much more about differences in how our brains work–differences that are dictated by genetics.

A PET scan of a brain showing a very high level of activity (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have identified a specific gene, the COMT gene, that may dictate more than anything else whether we are the ‘push through the stress and shine’ type of person, or the one who collapses on the floor and feels like a failure when the load gets too heavy.

This may sound like bad news, but I’m not sure it is. Knowing that something is beyond our control can help us figure out a work-around. More on the real-life ramifications of this in a minute. First, let me try to boil the research down into a few paragraphs so I don’t bore you to tears.

This COMT gene controls how quickly a certain neurotransmitter, dopamine, is removed from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain where our most complex reasoning occurs–problem-solving, moral decisions, conflict resolution, anticipating long-term consequences, etc.

Brainstorming with the prefrontal cortex

(Okay, it’s a lame cartoon. Give me a break. it’s hard to make the brain funny!)

Dopamine is the brain chemical that helps us think clearly by inhibiting unwanted thoughts and allowing us to concentrate. But to do this, it has to be at optimal levels. Too little and we are overwhelmed and distracted by random thoughts. Too much and the thoughts we want to focus on are also inhibited, i.e., our brains are too shut down.

There are two versions of this COMT gene, one that clears dopamine away slowly and one that removes it quickly (it’s originally released by the neurons, i.e., nerve cells, in the brain). Under normal circumstances, people with the rapid-removal version are at a disadvantage; their dopamine levels are often too low. The folks with the slow-removal version often have an advantage, and do better in school for example, because overall their prefrontal cortex thinks more clearly.

However, things change when you introduce high stress levels.

The study that tied all this together was done in Taiwan where researchers determined which gene was present in 779 junior high school students who were about to take a difficult entrance exam that would determine the quality of high school education they would receive.

The students with the slow-removal gene tended to have higher grades in school than those with the fast-removal gene. But when the stress of this high-stakes test flooded their prefrontal cortex with dopamine, their brains couldn’t remove it fast enough. Now their thinking was impaired by too much dopamine.

The fast-removal students (the ones with the lower grades in school) scored an average of 8 percentage points higher than the slow-removal students on this test. Their brains could handle the stress better, get rid of the excess dopamine, and allow them to excel.

(from en.wikipedia, public domain)

So what are the real-life implications of this? If something is genetically programmed, we can’t change it, but we can learn to cope with it and work around it.

If you were one of those kids who crashed and burned on big tests and class presentations, or if you have a child who falls into this category, you should find it comforting to know that this is not a character flaw. Knowing something is not our fault can help us be more matter-of-fact about dealing with it. It is what it is.

So how do we deal with it?

1.  Stop beating up on yourself for not coping well with pressure. You’re not dumb, morally deficient or mentally ill. Your brain just works differently than those who thrive on stress.

2.  Be selective about the types of situations you expose yourself to. Forcing yourself to deal with high-stakes situations is a set-up for disaster. For example, marketing, where you have to give make-or-break presentations to clients on a regular basis, may not be the best career choice.

I suspect that both my son and I have the slow-dopamine-removal gene. We both got good grades in school but tended to score rather mediocre on high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT.

My son had his heart set on a certain college. But his SAT scores were not high enough to get a merit scholarship despite his almost 4.0 GPA. At our insistence, he took the test again, without much improvement (despite tutoring beforehand).

If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have insisted that he take the SAT a second time. I would have gone immediately to our alternate plan. We found a couple other schools that did not place as much importance on SAT scores. He got accepted into the honors program at one of them, and received a scholarship!

3.  Use stress management and relaxation techniques to help lower your stress level, and thus your dopamine production, in high-pressure situations.

More on how to do this over the next few weeks. The last two installments in this Stress Management series will be on relaxation techniques and one of the most important aspects of stress management, changing our cognitive and emotional interpretation of stressors.

So talk to me. How well do you perform under pressure?  Do you think you are a fast-dopamine-removal or slow-dopamine-removal person?

How can we help our kids adjust and learn to cope if they tend to fold under pressure?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address where it says “subscribe to blog via email” in the column on the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

Whaddaya Mean Good Things Are Still Stressful?

This installment in my stress management series is long overdue, I know. Things kept getting in the way–good things, like Valentine’s Day and August McLaughlin’s awesome Beauty of a Woman Blogfest (that I just had to participate in).

So speaking of good things, that’s what I want to talk about today.

As I mentioned in previous posts, we all have a stress threshold, the point at which we have maxed out our coping ability. If we want to avoid stress overload, we have to keep our stress level below our threshold. To do this we need to better understand the three factors involved in how stressed we feel at any given time. These three factors are the stressors in our lives, our body’s response to them, and our cognitive/emotional interpretation of them.

We’ve already talked some about our body’s response to stressors (and I have some new stuff to share on that next time). Today I want to clarify a couple things about stressors.

Yes, Happy Events Are Still Stressful.

Can I see a show of hands, ladies? How many of you were in a bit of a daze on your wedding day? I know I was. And it wasn’t a blissful, I’m-so-happy daze either. It wasn’t even an I’m-so-worried-about-what-can-go-wrong daze. It was more an I’m-so-overwhelmed-because-it-took-so-much-to-get-here daze.

just before my wedding

Heading into the church just before my wedding. Note the spaced-out look on my face, as compared to my mother’s smiling visage! She’s also hanging onto my arm; I think I was staggering a bit.

I actually remember very little of the ceremony itself, mainly the bloopers: my father tripping over my train, the fly that kept buzzing around our heads, and my husband forgetting the vows we had written together and supposedly memorized. And no, I’m not remembering those things because I was upset about them. I actually found them to be moments of comic relief that brought me out of my daze a bit.

I have a fairly clear memory of the reception, however, because that’s when the stress level finally got down below my threshold!

So yes, happy events still add to our stress level, because they use our resources: time, energy and emotional coping ability.

And here’s another thing about stressors that most people don’t realize.

Stressors Are Cumulative.

You don’t have to have some major stressor going on in your life in order to end up too close to or even past your threshold. If we’ve got too much little stuff going on, it can push us over the edge. And we Americans tend to carry around way too big a stack of little stuff, sometimes without even realizing we’re doing it.

cartoon: person buried under papers on desk

I used to teach a community education class on stress management (translation: cheap non-credit class for the general public for which I received very little compensation). The first class, I’d give my students a homework assignment. They were to list everything they normally do on an average weekday, including minor tasks like loading the dishwasher or making the bed. Then they were supposed to divide that list into two columns, labeled “hafta’s” and “wanna’s.”

When they came back to the next class, I would ask them how many things were on their hafta list vs. their wanna list. Often there were more hafta’s than wanna’s; sometimes they were about even.

I would then point out that if they had more than three things on their hafta list, it was too long. They’d all look at me like I’d lost my mind – until I started going down some poor volunteer’s list asking, “Do you have to make the bed? …go to work? …pack your children’s lunches?” (Yes, I’d even challenge the premise that they had to feed their kids!)

“Why do you have to do that?” I’d ask.

Usually the answer would boil down to some version of  because they were responsible adults.

“Do you have to be a responsible adult? What happens if you’re not a responsible adult?” They’d list a bunch of dire consequences, such as losing their house if they didn’t earn a living, or people looking down on them if their kids went to school in dirty clothes.

“And you don’t like those things, right?”

“Right.”

“So you choose to do this other thing (pointing to the item on their hafta list) to avoid those consequences?”

“Well, yeah.”

“So it’s a wanna. You want to do this to avoid that, because you don’t like that.”

“Well, yeah.”

I highly recommend this little exercise, by the way. Make your two lists without thinking about it too much. Then go down the hafta list and ask yourself what the consequences would be if you didn’t do that thing, or if you did it differently, in a less stressful way.

There are three objectives here. One, you take back your sense of power over your life. You are doing these things out of choice, not because you have to do them. Feeling in control of the stressors in your life has been scientifically proven to reduce the amount of stress experienced.

Secondly, you may identify some things you do that you really don’t hafta do, nor do you wanna do them. (Making my own spaghetti sauce from scratch got dumped the first time I did this exercise; why should I go through all that when Ragu’s sauce actually tastes better than mine!)

Last but not least, you hopefully learn to be more flexible about what you have to do on any given day. You learn to ask yourself if that thing is really necessary at all, or can you do it an easier, less stressful way, especially if you are having a particular busy day.

My son was a picky eater as a kid (what kid isn’t?) There was very little the school cafeteria had to offer that he would eat (except the pizza that was always an alternative to the hot lunch of the day). Now pizza isn’t as horrible nutrition-wise as most people think, but I didn’t want him eating it every single day. So I packed his lunch.

That is, I packed his lunch most mornings. Some days, life would be particularly crazy, so I’d give him a dollar (dating myself here; yes, school lunches cost a buck 25 years ago) and tell him to buy pizza. For the longest time, I felt guilty doing this. What’s the matter with me that I can’t take five minutes to wash a piece of fruit, put a chicken drumstick in a baggie, and throw that stuff in his lunch box?”

One day, as I opened my wallet to extract the dollar bill, I had an epiphany. First of all, it wasn’t just about the five minutes. It was about the long list of things I needed to do that day that was churning through my head. I just needed to get a few things off that dang list, and this was an easy one to dump. Secondly, I wasn’t really helping my stress level any if I gave him a buck to avoid packing his lunch, but then spent emotional energy beating up on myself over it! (See my post on managing guilt).

Packing his lunch was a “wanna” because I didn’t want my kid eating pizza every day, but some days, I chose the alternative.

Through the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking myself if a task is a hafta or a wanna, and then I ask do I truly still wanna be doing it. This habit has served me well. It’s kept me from tipping over into stress overload on more than a few occasions.

How about you? What’s on your hafta list that’s probably really a wanna? And do you still wanna be doing it?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address where it says “subscribe to blog via email” in the column on the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

Whaddaya Mean, Stress Isn’t Always Bad?

I was more than a little shocked, years ago, when my graduate school professor informed my class that stress is a good thing, up to a point. You might, as I did at the time, find this hard to believe.

But hang on! Here’s the definition of stress: The activation of our physical and emotional resources to cope with the challenges of  life. Now when that challenge is a traffic jam or a deadline at work, that’s no fun. But if we didn’t like getting activated now and again, why would we do this?

roller coasterOr this?

two men fencing

photo credit: Frog and Onion (from Wikimedia Commons)

Or play any sport, or read a mystery novel for that matter. If feels good to get the heart thumping a bit and the juices flowing.

But even when we’re not doing something quite as drastic as fencing or hanging upside down from a roller coaster, stress is a good thing, up to a point, in everyday life.

Let me go back and explain a few things first, so this will make more sense.

Why Stress Has a Bad Reputation

Our bodies were designed to handle far more primitive challenges than we face today. Most of the challenges our cave-person ancestors encountered were physical, such as hunting for food or fending off wild animals and hostile tribes.

So our bodies have this thing called the stress response, that prepares us for physical action to deal with those physical challenges. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, adrenaline’s released, muscles tense, you start sweating, and your digestive system temporarily shuts down (because it’s more important to deal with the sabertooth tiger trying to eat you than it is to digest what you just ate).

pacing tiger

Today, however, 90% of our challenges are psychological/emotional–coping with changes in our lives, relationships, deadlines, etc. So you’re sitting at your computer all stressed out about the report/paper you’re trying to finish for your boss/teacher, while your body is preparing you to fight off sabertooth tigers. All those physical changes take a toll on your body, especially when you don’t actually do anything physical in response to the stressor.

There’s a part of our nervous systems, called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), that  deals with all this. The ANS has two branches, the sympathetic branch (SNS) that causes all those changes listed above (plus several more) and the parasympathetic branch (PNS), that brings our bodies back to a calm state once the challenge or threat is over.

So after our ancestors fought the sabertooth tiger, their bodies would go “ah, time to relax.” (Assuming they won, that is.) Their PNS would kick in. Heart rate and BP came back down, muscles relaxed, digestion came back online, and life was good again. 🙂

In modern society, we tend to be stressed for longer periods of time, with no physical outlet. This is what does such a number on our bodies! You’ve probably heard the old expression, “All dressed up and no place to go.” Well, this is all revved up and no place to go!

 Why Do We Feel Stressed?

We tend to assume that our stress level is dictated by how much we have on our to-do lists. But stressors are not the only factor involved.

That grad school prof I mentioned above (Dr. George Everly, Loyola University, Maryland) taught us a three-factor model to understand stress. His explanations regarding how stress works and what to do about it made so much sense, they have stuck with me for 30 years! And I’ve passed them on to hundreds of my students.

I’ll go into more detail regarding these factors in future posts. For now, a brief summary.

The first factor is the stressors. Some events–getting married, losing a job, etc.–are biggies in the stressor category, but a lot of little stuff can add up as well. And even good events contribute to our stress load, because they still require resources to deal with them. Take vacations, for example. We go on them to relieve stress, right? But they also cause stress! We’ve gotta plan them, pack for them, make sure stuff at work is organized to get along without us, deal with traveling hassles, worry about lost luggage… you get the picture.

lugage on airport carousel

photo credit: Lynn Kelley Author (from WANA Commons)

In my pre-Christmas post on managing stress overload, I talked about how to reduce stressors by dumping, delegating and postponing some of them. I’ll deal with stressors some more in a later post as well.

The second factor in how stressed we feel is our body’s response to stress. There are several issues here. One is whether our bodies have any predisposed vulnerabilities to stress-induced illnesses. Another is our innate tolerance for stress (called our stress threshold). More on this in a moment. And last but not least is how often we relax our bodies, something that makes a huge difference in our stress level.

Third is our cognitive and emotional interpretation of the stressors. There are exceptions, but most stressors are not stressors until we interpret them as such. Quick example: I love to drive. I find it relaxing. For my husband, it is one of the most stressful aspects of life. How we perceive stressors is going to be affected by our personalities and our past experiences.

In later posts I’ll dissect these factors a bit more. Today, I want to focus on the stress threshold aspect of the body’s response.

So Get to the Point; Why Is Stress Good, Up to a Point?

Okay, okay. Here it is.

We all have a stress threshold, the point at which our coping ability is exhausted. Below that threshold, stress is a good thing. It motivates and energizes us. Have you ever had a day (hopefully you’ve had many like this) when you’re feeling good, chugging along at a nice pace, getting a whole bunch of stuff accomplished? I love days like that! The challenges are manageable and I’m being activated to meet them. That activation makes me feel alive and gives me a sense of achievement.

The problem arises when the stress level hits our threshold, and sometimes–no, make that often–we don’t see this coming. We may feel our best, the most energized and alive, when we’re hovering dangerously close to this threshold. And then one more little stressor comes along, and whammo, we’re over the edge.

This threshold is an on-off switch. When our coping ability is gone, it’s gone. One minute we’re handling everything, the next, we’re not handling anything.

When I was thirty, I was in graduate school, working full-time, starting my own business on the side and raising a preschooler. ~ Okay, that sentence stressed me out just typing it. ~ But at the time, I thought I had a handle on it all. I was revved! Life was exciting and satisfying.

That fall (ironically, while I was taking Dr. Everly’s class), mortgage interest rates dropped and my husband and I naively decided it would be good to refinance our house. Before we realized what all was involved in this, we were committed. One evening I came home from work, and sitting on the table was yet another letter from the bank informing us of yet another thing we needed to do, and pay for.

I lost it! I started slamming doors and yelling things that brought into question the pedigree of the bank employees. I had gone totally over the stress-overload cliff. When I finally simmered down, my husband (bless him) calmly said, “Maybe I should handle the refinance. You’re a little stressed out right now, dear.”

It was a tough lesson learned. Stop and think before you pile yet another stressor on an already full plate.

Here’s another sneaky problem with this dang threshold thing. There are actually two of them. The one I just described is our psychological one. The other is our health threshold. We’ve reached that one when our tissues and organs are suffering more wear and tear per day from stress than can be repaired that night while we sleep. When we’re past that threshold, we’re putting ourselves at risk for a whole slew of stress-related ailments, including heart disease and cancer.

And here’s the total kicker. The health threshold is lower than the psychological one. So we may still be coping well, may even feel great about all we’re getting done, when we are already doing our bodies damage from that level of stress.

Optimizing the Good Stress, Minimizing the Bad

So the moral of the story, folks: If we want to live long and prosper, we need to stay in the good stress level zone, comfortably below our threshold. That way, we’re not putting excessive wear and tear on our bodies, and we’re leaving some leeway for unforeseen stressors.

To accomplish this, one has to do two things. First, pay attention to your stress level for awhile and get a sense of just how much stuff you can handle (i.e., where your threshold is). And while you’re doing that, pay attention to your early warning signs that you are getting too close to your threshold.

For me, it’s getting grumpy and short-tempered (my husband would say, getting grumpier and more short-tempered). The big flag is if I start losing it on the road when other drivers cut me off or are dragging their feet. Normally, I just mumble something sarcastic like, “Uh, ya see that pedal, the long skinny one on the right?” And then I let it go. But if I find myself yelling at them (inside my car; I’m not crazy enough to actually get in their face) and I’m still fuming about it when I get to my destination…

As Jeff Foxworthy would say, “Here’s your sign.”

I am way too close to the edge of that cliff. It is time to dump, delegate or postpone a few stressors in order to get comfortably back in the good stress level range again. Because I’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to stand too close to that edge; the ground might just crumble away beneath me.

Beware of Cliff Edge sign

What about you, what are your early warning signs that you’re getting too close to the stress-overload cliff?

(More on stress management in future weeks. Next week I’ll be guest blogging over at Rhonda Hopkins’ place as part of her Authors Give Back series. I’ll be talking about my experience as the grandmother of an autistic child, and the organization, Autism Speaks, that helps these children get the help they need to live fuller lives. Come join me there next Tuesday, February 12.)

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address where it says “subscribe to blog via email” in the column on the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!

 

DDPP: Surviving the Stress of the Holidays (and a Contest!)

In my practice as a psychotherapist I did a lot of work with stress management. When my clients were in stress overload, I would recommended that they Dump, Delegate, Postpone and Pamper.  “Just remember, DDPP,” I would tell them.

One client jokingly said, “That sounds like a pesticide.” And thus DDPP was dubbed the ‘stressicide formula.’

As we move into this hectic and very stressful time of year, it is all too likely that we will end up in stress overload.

(photo by Benson Kua)

And once we’re there, everything becomes overwhelming. The thing about stress is that we have this threshold. We can be doing fine, reveling even in how much we’re getting accomplished in our fast-paced lives. And then suddenly, we’ve passed our threshold for coping with stress and suddenly we’re a basket case. We’re not dealing with ANYTHING very effectively anymore.

The stress threshold is like that. It’s an on-off switch. We’re good, we’re good, we’re great even as we multi-task and get revved up to accomplish even more, and then whammo, we’ve used up all our coping ability and we’re burned out big time!

That’s when we need to apply DDPP.

DUMP: Is it really necessary or can we just stop doing it, temporarily at least. In the course of everyday life, when I’m stressed out, the first thing that goes is making the bed. I like a neat house and a bedroom with a made bed. But this is not essential stuff. I can let it go when other things are demanding my coping resources.

At Christmas time, DUMP becomes even more important. My to-do-list gets pared down to what is truly essential to do to make the holiday what I want it to be.

Two years ago, when my oldest grandson was right smack in the middle of the terrible twos, we dumped the formal turkey dinner and had a cold buffet instead. I cooked a couple turkey breasts in advance, sliced them and took them to my son and daughter-in-law’s house. We served them with a variety of cold salads and breads. And you know what, we actually had a better time than we’d had the year before while trying to put together a formal Christmas dinner and deal with an 18-month-old who tends to be hyperactive.

It’s become a new family tradition. I doubt we will ever go back to the sit-down meal, at least not until my grandchildren are a bit older.

All this baby needs in a big green wreath on it!! (photo by Ildar Sagdejev)

DELEGATE: Is there someone else who also legitimately shares responsibility for the task you are stressed about? Or is there someone you can trade off with to deal with the current stressors, and you’ll pay them back later?

We all go through periods of stress overload. So trade off with those with whom you share your life. You help me now, I help you later.

In the mid 1990’s I was getting burned out as a therapist, so I started teaching part-time and cutting back on my psychotherapy practice. My husband and I negotiated a new deal. During the last three crunchy weeks of the semester, when I had a gazillion papers to grade, final exams to write, etc., he would do pretty much all the household chores. Then during my winter and summer breaks, I would do pretty much all of them.

POSTPONE: I’m not advocating procrastination here. But if it’s anything that can legitimately be put off until after the first of the year, postpone it! A lot of things that are not Christmas related can often be postponed. I’ve learned not to schedule routine doctor, dentist or vet appointments after November 15th. If my body, teeth and dog have made it through the first 10.5 months of the year, by golly, they can hang in there for 1.5 more.

My husband started teaching a few years ago. Now we both have the end of semester crunch right before the holidays. One of his Christmas tasks has always been writing the Christmas cards. The year after he started teaching he decided to adopt the European tradition of sending New Year’s cards instead.

Now he can relax over the task and enjoy writing notes to old friends, catching them up on the happenings of the last year.

And last but definitely not least…

PAMPER:

SANTA, I WANT ONE OF THESE!! (The hot tub, not the blond tyke — photo by Bin im Garten)

Unfortunately when we’re stressed out, the first thing that goes is taking care of ourselves. But that’s when our bodies and minds need pampering the most. We need to pay more attention, not less, to getting enough sleep and trying to eat a healthy diet. Because when we’re in stress overload we are putting more wear and tear on our bodies than they can really handle.

A few minutes of relaxation, about three times a day, can do wonders. Stop, sit, put your feet up, close your eyes, take a deep breath. And do something relaxing, if only for ten to twenty minutes. Read, take a bubble bath, or just sit there and meditate (and maybe daydream about January 2nd!)

You can also use guided imagery to go to somewhere relaxing in your head. Imagine yourself strolling down sandy beaches on a warm day. It doesn’t even have to be someplace you’ve actually been. Make it up. I have this lovely rose garden inside my head that has never existed, and never will exist in my brown-thumb real world where I can’t even keep a potted cactus alive.

The time spent relaxing will be well invested, and not just from a health standpoint. You’ll find that you are more focused and productive when you go back to doing the multitude of things you need to get done.

And when each hectic day is over, treat yourself to a relaxing wind-down before bed so that you sleep well.

Christmas is supposed to be a joyful time. Somewhere along the way in our society, it has turned into a major pressure cooker. But if we can apply a little stressicide, some DDPP, to our holiday preparations, we may just be able to recapture the joy and peace of the season!

Please feel free to leave a comment, but if you’re too busy, I’ll understand. Do take a moment, however, to check out our MEGA December Contest that runs thru 12/23.

(Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.)

We blog here at misterio press once a week about more serious topics, usually on Monday or Tuesday. Sometimes we blog again, on Friday or the weekend, with something just for fun.

Please follow us by filling in your e-mail address where it says “subscribe to blog via email” in the column on the right, so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun!