Say Yes to Stress.

Your brain learns from stress.

In the hours after a stressful experience, your brain builds new wiring so you can avoid similar threats in the future. This is the survival mechanism we’ve inherited from our animal ancestors.

Stanford Professor Kelly McGonigal researches the benefits of embracing stress instead of running from it. Here are 3 simple ways to enjoy the benefits of your stress:

1. View stress as evidence that you have a meaningful life, not as evidence that you have a flawed life.
2. View stress as energy you can use, not as a debilitating affliction.
3. View stress as a free high-performance training program that strengthens you rather than weakens you.

If you believe you need to escape stress, you are more likely to engage in behaviors that increase stress in the long run, says Professor McGonigal. If you believe you can manage stress, you will avoid self-destructive behaviors. Accepting stress as a natural learning tool will improve your life significantly.

Stress in nature
You may believe that happiness is the state of nature, and stress is caused by “our society.” The truth is more complicated. Stress is as natural as pleasure. Animals live with threat and see their children get eaten alive sometimes. They survive by scanning constantly for threats. So how do they manage their sense of threat?

The animal brain responds to potential threats by releasing cortisol, known as the “stress chemical.” Cortisol paves neural pathways that put an animal on high alert when it gets a whiff of anything similar. A lot of cortisol results, but animals don’t make it worse by replaying threats in their minds. They don’t have enough neurons to do that.

You have enough neurons to replay old threats, and visualize future threats. This gives us problem-solving power, which is why our children are hardly ever eaten by predators. But it also gives you that predator-threat feeling when no predator is around. You can stop your cortisol response by building a sense of safety and shifting your attention to it.

Then, stop. Do nothing. Your body needs a few minutes to metabolize the cortisol. Anything you do while it’s still flowing will take on a negative cast. That will trigger more cortisol and feed the cycle. So pause to do something fun for a few minutes until the cortisol is gone.

Your brain will always scan for potential threats because that’s the job it’s designed to do. You must consciously shift your focus to things that help you feel safe, again and again. It’s not easy being a big-brained mammal. But you can pride yourself on your stress management skills, like astronauts, emergency responders, and people who assemble IKEA furniture.

About the Author: Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which helps people re-wire their brain for more happy chemicals. (www.InnerMammalInstitute.org) She’s the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals, Beyond Cynical, and I, Mammal. Dr. Breuning retired from a career as Professor of Management at California State University, East Bay to teach people about the brain chemistry we’ve inherited from earlier animals. Before teaching, she was a United Nations Volunteer in Africa. Now she volunteer as a Docent at the Oakland Zoo, where she gives family-friendly tours on the social behavior of mammals. She’s graduate of Cornell and Tufts, and the proud mother of tax-paying adults.

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