How to make Stress your Friend!

 In Mental Health Wellness and Stress

As you are reading this, take a slow, deep breath and fill your lungs with air. Hold your breath for three seconds. Now, breathe out slooooowwwwly. Do this again twice, but only this time, close your eyes and when you are through, read on.

Congratulations! You have just taken advantage of a free relaxation technique. It’s almost easier than saying pranayama!  

While trying to decide what to write about for this week’s newsletter on “combatting stress”, I recalled one of the best TED talks I’ve ever seen (“How to Make Stress Your Friend”).Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal (author of “The Upside of Stress:  Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It”) passionately shares the results of research that demonstrates that stress itself is not the enemy. She argues that our perception of how stress affects our health and our appraisal of the human stress response is what can be harmful. She also discusses how helping others could contribute to stress resilience.

One of the reasons chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease is because adrenaline gets the heart pumping and creates a greater demand for oxygen while simultaneously causing vasoconstriction (you can see how this could be a problem for some). However, oxytocin is also released during a stress response and produces vasodilation of vascular smooth muscle, in turn increasing renal, coronary and cerebral blood flow (hooray!). This protective neurohormone can also enhance empathy and make us seek human support. And here is the bonus for nurses:  it is also released when we help someone else. (See, there’s actual science behind hug therapy! Commence hugging!)

McGonigal also asks us to listen to our bodies when we are under stress and view our stress response as helpful. It is our body’s way of preparing us for a challenge. She cited a study[1]that utilized the Biopsychosocial Model of “challenge” and “threat” to explain how reappraisal of the stress response as functional can elicit a “challenge” response instead. Physiologically, the challenge response includes vasodilation (vs. vasoconstriction in a “threat” response). In essence, make a decision to believe your body is equipped with the resources to face difficult situations and your body will react in a healthier way.

As nurses and active participants in this great wheel of fortune, we are expected to be there for it all– the coming into this world, the living, the dying…and then our own stuff. Since stress is here to stay, we might as well think of our body’s response to it as a built in performance enhancer!

We hope you will take the time to watch the TED talk above as well as another awesome talk on power poses.


Lisa Ertle, B.A., R.N. and the Healthy Nurse Healthy New Jersey Team

[1]Jeremy P. Jamieson et al. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141(2), 412-422. Retrieved from

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