I’m about to tell you something that’s gonna upend everything you know about stress.
Recent research has found that stress can actually be good for you. And not just on an emotional level, stress can actually heal you physically, too.
The problem is we’ve been doing stress wrong.
We’ve been told that stress is harmful, that it puts us in fight or flight mode, which can cause long term health damage over time. This is true! However what researchers recently discovered is that there’s another mode we can go onto that’s not harmful and avoids the fight or flight reaction. In fact, this kind of stress can help heal our bodies and create a greater sense of well-being and self-esteem.
It’s called challenge stress.
Let me explain the difference. Here’s what we normally think of as stress:
Imagine you’re in a stressful situation and it feels out of your control. You don’t know how you’re going make it through, you don’t have the knowledge or skills to solve the problem, and you feel like you’re doing this on your own. This type of stress response is what causes us to go into fight or flight and yes, it is harmful to both our mental and physical health.
Now imagine the same situation, but instead of feeling out of control, you feel like it’s a challenge, and you feel sure you can figure it out. You may not know how to solve the problem yourself, but you know someone who would be a good resource and would be happy to help. You also feel confident that you can find information or solutions that will allow you to figure this out. You feel competent, confident and like this is a challenge you can handle. You also know that you have a support system of friends, family or coworkers who will support you as you deal with this situation, both logistically and emotionally. This is what researchers have named “challenge stress.”
Can you feel the difference in these two scenarios? The first scenario would cause all sorts of damaging changes in our hormones, heart rate, nervous system and immune system. The second scenario is quite different. It not only doesn’t damage our bodies, but when we experience this kind of challenge stress our bodies start to heal! Our immune systems go into a healthy mode, our bodies release happy chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin (the reward and bonding neurotransmitters), our heart rate becomes more healthy, and we gain feelings of self-efficacy and support from our tribe of fellow humans.
But how can we shift from traditional stress to challenge stress?
Next time you’re feeling stressed, here are 4 ways you can move out of unhealthy stress and into healthy “challenge” stress.
- Come back to the present moment. So much of our stress response is really about what we fear happening in the future because of our current situation. We play out all sorts of ways that the stressful situation could go wrong. I call this “the rolodex of catastrophe.” When you start to ruminate about how your stressful situation might turn out badly, gently and lovingly remind yourself that you actually don’t know how this will play out. Then, come back to this present moment and think about what you can do now to move forward in a positive way.
- Change your POV on the situation. One of the most interesting ideas to come out of these studies is that our thoughts about stress actually affect our physiological response to stress. If you think stress is harmful, it will be. However, if you think stress is more like a challenge or problem that you can solve, it will lower your risk of harmful effects. Kelly McGonigal writes that “High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent. But—and this is what got my attention—that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.” So next time you feel stressed say to yourself, “I can handle this! I just need to take it one step at a time.”
I saw this meme a few months ago and I think it illustrates this so beautifully. It’s actually not that hard to change our POV on life’s stressors (or in this case, life’s banalities) and create a whole new set of feelings of excitement and joy where we were once feeling stress, boredom or anxiety.
- Take stock of your resources. One of the hallmarks of shifting to challenge stress is the awareness that you have the resources to find a solution. This means not only resources or solutions you already know, but also cultivating more resources. So, when you feel stressed think about two things: how can I find more information about possible solutions? And who do I know that may have some answers (or be able to point you towards answers)? If you feel resourceful in the face of stress rather than ineffectual or overwhelmed, it will help shift you into challenge stress mode.
- Reach out to your support system. If there’s one thing we’ve collectively learned from the pandemic, it’s how important our support systems can be. There are so many studies that show the beneficial effects of reaching out and feeling supported. Having a good support system can prevent depression, lengthen life span, and of course, make stressful situations easier to manage. When you’re in a stressful situation, reach out to your support system for both practical and emotional support. This causes all sorts of positive physiological and hormonal changes in our bodies that promote health, happiness and healing on a cellular level.
I hope these strategies give you a new way to approach stress. And even if you don’t implement them, simply having the knowledge that stress isn’t harmful will help your health! How about that? You’ve just increased your lifespan simply by reading this post.
Take good care and have fun with your side quests today.
When I first started the study of energy healing, I took a course on the Chinese 5-element theory. The 5 elements represent a cyclic, spiral growth cycle that you can see everywhere around you, from the cells in your body to the creation of new galaxies. Each of the elements (fire, earth, metal, water, and wood) has different qualities attached to it and one of those qualities is that each has a unique emotion.
Fire —> Joy
Earth —> Contentment
Metal —> Grief
Water —> Fear
Wood —> Anger
After we learned about this cycle, my teacher, Ka’imi, asked us, “What do you think is the most spiritual emotion?”
As dutiful students of spiritual growth, we all answered, “Joy!” or “Contentment!” for these are what we are often (mistakenly) told are the signposts of a highly evolved life.
Our teacher paused and said, “I disagree. The most spiritual emotion is anger.”
We were all confused. Anger? How can that be spiritual? Wars are started by angry men. Our society is divided by people who are angry with “the other side.” How can anger be the most spiritual of all the emotions?
He went on to explain, “Our job here as spiritual beings having a human experience is to grow. We are here to experience change over the course of a lifetime, to continue through this cycle over and over again. Anger is what we feel when something gets in our way, or blocks our path forward, and therefore it causes us to take big action. Anger has the most forward motion of any of the emotions in this cycle. Anger is what generates the most growth in the shortest amount of time.”
I think he was right. If we take a look at how the 5-element emotional cycle works, we can get a more clear view of how this works.
We’ll start with contentment. Let’s say you’re in a good place, and nothing in your life is really going wrong at the moment. You have a place to live, food to eat, good people in your life and a way of making money that isn’t making you feel terrible all the time.
But then, something changes and with change, there’s always grief and loss. Maybe your best friend moves to a new town. Or you hurt your knee and can’t do your favorite activity anymore. Or maybe you get a new boss at work who starts to micromanage you. You feel the sadness of losing something that had brought you joy. Things have changed and there’s a part of you that misses the way they were before.
In the depth of this grief, you start to feel fear. What if I never find a friend with who I can have the same type of close relationship? What if I’m stuck in this job I don’t like anymore because I need the paycheck? What if I can never do long hikes again because of my knee? We become afraid of never feeling happy again and we worry that we’ll be stuck here in this unhappy new reality forever.
This is where a lot of people get stuck, bouncing back and forth between sadness and worry. We feel the loss of what we once had, and then get stuck in the fear of never having it again, or that things will get even worse from here and we’ll never get back to contentment again.
But if you can harness that fear and sadness, if you can look at the parts of yourself with which you’re discontent and say, “That’s it! I’m not going to take this anymore! I don’t know how, but I’m going to make some changes so that I can get back to feeling joy!” then you, my friend, have accessed sacred anger.
For many of us, it was unsafe to express anger in our families of origin and so we check ourselves when that starts to bubble up, and revert back to fear and sadness. For others, we learned how to access the surge of energy and emotion that comes from anger but we don’t know how to do the deep shadow work to move from anger to joy, so we stay stuck bouncing between anger and fear.
So here’s how to do the hard part, friends. Here’s how to move from fear and anger to joy.
Most of the elements of this cycle happen without our input — we’re coasting along (contentment) things change (loss), and then we worry that we’ll never feel safe and happy again (fear), then we feel disgruntled at this new unhappy reality (beginning of anger). Those all happen without much energy or planning on our part.
When you find yourself stuck in worry, fear or discontentment, you need to do 2 things:
- Look at where you’re feeling the loss. What emotional nutrient are we lacking that’s making us sad? It may be something we had and lost, or something we never had in the first place but have always longed for. Some examples may be love, care, safety, inspiration, joy, unconditional positive regard, or zen.
- Give yourself permission to feel worthy of this emotional nutrient. This is where shadow work and reparenting can be particularly effective. (I teach a whole class on this If you need more strategies here!)
Here’s a little science secret about your nervous system — you don’t actually get the most happiness from having what you want (contentment). You feel the most happiness when you are working to reach that goal (joy). This is why in the 5 element theory joy is the “fire” element— it’s the period where we’re using that inner fire to create better circumstances, develop better relationships, and allow ourselves to know through our own actions that we’re worthy of this type of abundance.
Once we have identified the loss and given ourselves unconditional permission to have an abundance of whatever we deeply need, then we can tap into anger and joy. The anger is that unwillingness to stay in fear or sadness and the joy is the fire we use to make the changes we need to get back to place of contentment.
Okay, confession time — I really should have said there were three things you should do to get out of worry, fear or discontentment. But this is where the fire metaphor becomes complicated.
Yes, we need fire to grow. Fire is a key component of life. But fire also destroys. And the hardest thing we must do in moving from anger to joy is realize that to get to a new level of joy, we might have to burn it all down.
The third thing you need to do to get out of worry, fear or discontentment is to embrace Kali energy.
Kali is a hindu goddess, often called “the goddess of destruction and creation.” The idea here is that nothing new can be created until the old has been destroyed to create space for the new. Just as the new leaves on a tree cannot grow in spring until the old ones have died and decomposed in autumn and winter, we cannot invite in new joy until we have destroyed the old patterns that no longer serve us. This is exactly why anger must precede joy — we have to become SO ANGRY at how things are, that we’re willing to burn it all down to find a new way of being. But burning it all down is terrifying (I mean, just look at the depictions of Kali. Yikes!) and we can’t harness that amount of courage from a place of fear, we must harness it through anger. We have to use the fire of anger to move forward, to a new more advanced way of being and accept the destruction of anything that no longer serves us in the process.
Many of us take that anger and try to move backwards, to the last time we were content. But growth doesn’t happen backwards, and true courage isn’t about fighting for what feels familiar, it’s about fighting for what you need for your next level of evolution.
Remember, the Phoenix only rose from the ashes after the fire had killed it. Kali only destroys things so that new paradigms and new ideas can grow in that place. Anger only works if we are willing to dive into the unknown, the darkness, and trust that our next level of joy will come from what we find after we’ve totally transformed our way of being, destroying what no longer serves us in the process.
Remember, “everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear,” and anger is the sacred fuel to get you there.
So, what’s so important to you that you’re willing to go into the shadow to get it? What circumstance, belief system, or way of being is having you become so sick that you’re willing to burn the whole thing down so you can find out what will grow there instead? What artifice of safety, security or familiarity are you willing to let go of so you can find your true self, your eternal self, in the place beyond?
The other day, my mentor asked me, “Are you proud of yourself?”
I had just finished running my new course, Unconventional Tools for Healing, for the first time and was telling her how pleased I was to get some really lovely feedback from the participants.
I stopped for a moment and reflected on her question. I answered honestly, and felt myself holding back tears as I responded:
“I don’t think I know how to be proud of myself.”
The first time I ever remember hearing, “I’m proud of you” from any of my family members was in an email from my father after I’d finished cancer treatment. I’d been writing a blog throughout my treatment and he responded to one of my posts, telling me he was proud of me.
I cried big, wet tears for about 20 minutes. I didn’t realize how long I’d been waiting to hear that from him.
The insidious fallout for children of emotionally immature or abusive parents is that we often don’t learn what it feels like to take a moment to be proud of ourselves. If we’re hyperfocused and hypervigilant on being the good girl or boy and keeping all the plates spinning in the air, we never learn to stop and take stock of what we’ve achieved.
That moment of feeling pride is important. It’s a moment of rest, reflection and integration before starting the next task.
But in the day in and day out nature of extreme emotional caretaking, there is no rest and there is no moment to reflect.
If this is what “normal” was for you as a child, then stopping, reflecting, and being proud of what you’ve achieved can feel uncomfortable and perhaps even a little anxiety provoking. There’s no awareness of the importance of resting and feeling proud of your achievements before taking on the next challenge.
Here are some signs that you might never have learned how to rest and integrate:
- You feel anxious of uncomfortable when you have nothing to do. Your brain wants to know, “what’s next?” and you quickly find something to busy yourself. (This can also manifest as ADHD.)
- You think that your achievements are just the bare minimum of what you were supposed to do. I finished chemo? Well, I had cancer I was supposed to. I launched a successful online course? Well, I was supposed to, that’s what you do when you have your own business.
- You think that all of the success you’ve achieved might be because of a fluke and not because you worked hard and deserved it. The good things that happen to you are courtesy of chance. The bad things that happen to you are your responsibility.
- You don’t think your needs matter or are worth taking into account and this includes your need for rest and integration.
- You feel that you are not enough. You feel like you have to go above and beyond every time and that nothing you do is ever quite good enough.
- You think that you are too much and you need to work on toning it down.
- You believe that if you take time to rest, you will be chastised for being lazy, needy or selfish.
If any of these feel familiar, then please let me be the first to tell you:
Rest, my child.
You deserve to rest.
You deserve to take time for yourself to reset, realign, and heal.
You deserve time only for yourself, with no responsibilities for anyone or anything else.
And furthermore, I am proud of you. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve lived a life that’s anything special or you’ve done anything particularly praise worthy, I am proud of you.
I am proud of you because you have made it this far through some pretty tough shit. You’ve survived some things that probably temporarily broke you, and you’ve picked yourself up and put the pieces back together.
YOU did that. And that’s pretty amazing.
So, please, hear me when I say I’m proud of you.
And now, let us rest.
I didn’t always know that I had psychic abilities.
But, when I was about 25 years old, I was lying in bed one night, absent-mindedly running my hands over my belly. This was something I automatically did to self-soothe and relax. When my hand moved over this spot on my left side, all of the voices in my head that tick through my to-do list or rehash that last conversation I had—all of that suddenly went …silent.
And I then I heard my own voice, but very calm and very secure. It said “there’s going to be something wrong there.” To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. I didn’t know what it meant or what I should do. Should I go to the doctor and tell her I was hearing voices telling me there’s going to be something wrong there– I mean I didn’t know what they could even do with that.
So, I just filed it away, and for the awhile, I paid close attention to that spot, testing to see if I felt anything, but nothing. There was nothing . . . until about 5 years later. And then, it was the same thing. I was rubbing my belly, relaxing and calming myself after a long day. My hand drifted over that spot, and the same thing happened. All of the voices went quiet, and I heard my own voice say “there’s something wrong there now,”—which, as you can imagine, freaked me out a bit. Okay, a lot.
What do you do about that? How do you tell a doctor that? Usually when you tell your doctor you’re hearing voices, they don’t recommend that you listen to the voices. So I filed it away, and six months later I started to experience excruciating stomach pain. But not in that spot, a little lower down.
So I finally saw a doctor, and another doctor . . . and another. They thought I had IBS, and then colitis. They kept giving me all of these medications to try but nothing worked. Finally one day my doctor said “ok, lets do this test and see what we find.”
So, after the test, they woke me up and said–“You have colon cancer.”
I was really freaked out, as you can imagine. I met with different doctors, different oncologists, and finally had surgery to remove the tumor. Afterward, I asked the surgeon where the tumor had been, and he told me where it was– and it was in the EXACT spot where my hand had been when I heard that voice. My voice. So I asked him if he could tell how long the tumor had been there, and he said “well, I’m probably guessing about 5 years.”
I was floored.
A) How did my body know 5 years ago that there was cancer there just starting to form, and B) how did it communicate that with me as my own voice in my own head?
I went through chemo and radiation, and after I finished treatment, I was super curious about how it all worked. I enrolled in classes on intuition and intuitive healing, and was immediately hooked. I had been Pre-Med and graduated with a BA in Science– but this system made so much more sense to me, plus I was getting all of these cool downloads about how the body works, both for myself and when I worked on other people. Soon after, I started using my skills as a medical intuitive to help other people.
That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
I diagnosed my own cancer. Kinda crazy huh?
A few years ago, I was listening to a podcast, and someone mentioned they had C-PTSD. I’d never heard of this before (PTSD, yes. But C-PTSD? Nope.)
I looked it up, and when I saw the definition and symptoms, I immediately realized, “Oh FFS — that’s me. I have this.”
C-PTSD stands for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and although it shares similar characteristics with PTSD, there are some marked differences. While PTSD happens as a result of a one-time or shorter duration traumatic event, like serving on active duty in a war zone or surviving a physical attack, C-PTSD occurs when people experience trauma from on-going experiences such as childhood neglect or abuse, domestic abuse, human trafficking, or living in a war-torn or extremely impoverished region for more than a year.
Some of the symptoms experienced by people with C-PTSD include:
- Avoiding situations that remind them of the trauma
- Dizziness or nausea when remembering the trauma
- A negative self-view: Complex PTSD can cause a person to view themselves negatively and feel helpless, guilty, or ashamed. They often consider themselves to be different from other people and don’t know where they fit in.
- Changes in beliefs and worldview: People with C-PTSD may hold a negative view of the world and the people in it, feel a loss of trust in themselves or others, or feel that the world is a dangerous place.
- Emotional regulation difficulties: These conditions can cause people to have extreme emotional reactions to some situations. They may experience intense anger, fear or sadness that seems highly disproportionate for the given situation.
- Hyperarousal or hypervigilance: they are in a continuous state of high alert or feel like they are constantly “walking on eggshells” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop” much of the time.
- Relationship issues. Relationships may suffer due to difficulties with trusting and interacting, and because of a negative self-view. A person may develop unhealthy relationships because they don’t know or never had models for a healthy relationship.
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or being able to nap. Difficulty concentrating or increased procrastination. In some cases, ADHD can in fact be caused by C-PTSD.
- Detachment from the trauma: A person may dissociate, which means feeling detached from emotions or physical sensations. Some people completely forget the trauma.
- Preoccupation with an abuser: It is not uncommon to fixate on the abuser, the relationship with the abuser, or getting revenge for the abuse.
- Reliving the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares.
As I looked over this list of symptoms, I realized that I have (or had) all of these. I grew up in a home with some pretty gnarly emotional, medical, and physical abuse– and it had left its mark.
When we spend a long time in traumatic situations, especially as we’re growing and developing, our very smart body-minds adapt for survival. Entire systems change and adapt in order to be able to survive and keep us safe: our nervous system, vagal system, immune system, digestive system and the microbiome, emotional regulation and response, cognitive processing–as well as all of our energetic systems like meridians, the heart torus field, chakras and more–shift and adapt to what “normal” is in this traumatic world. When we are finally free of the traumatic situation, we now have a whole body-mind that needs to be retuned to be able to thrive in a non-traumatic world.
So, how do we heal this?
While there’s no “one-size-fits-all” fix for embodied trauma and C-PTSD, I can tell you what’s worked best for me.
- Therapy. Find yourself a good trauma-informed therapist and talk this shit out. I’ve been in therapy off and on for most of my adult life because the sneaky nature of trauma is that it can rear its ugly head in new situations all the time.
- Meditation. I first learned to meditate through a study at UCSF on “Cultivating Emotional Balance.” It took YEARS AND YEARS of practice before mediation became something that was easy for me but, damn, it was worth it. I can switch my mood from anxious to joyous in 20 minutes and can stay present and grounded in even the most triggering of situations now. One of the benefits that isn’t talked about enough is the changes that happen when we’re *not* meditating. Somehow that daily practice of 20 minutes of meditation has ripple effects outside of that time, too. I can now get into that meditative headspace immediately at almost any time of the day and feel the same effects of calm, peaceful joy that come from being in the present moment (aka mindfulness.)
- Books. I read self-help books all the time. I’ve found that there are two types that help me the most. There are books that give advice and teach you tools for a certain issue, like hypervigilance or perfectionism. These are helpful for when my symptoms arise and I need a tool or strategy to deal with them in the moment. And then there are autobiographical books that are written by people who went through something similar to me. These are sooooo validating and helpful and make me realize that what I went through was wrong and horrible (I tend to normalize things and underreact to trauma). They remind me that I am not as much of a freak or weirdo as I may imagine, and that other people have gone through the same thing and have had similar feelings and responses. (I mean, I am a freak and a weirdo, but in a totally awesome way, not in a social pariah kind of way.)
- Energy healing. Oh boy. This was so profound for me that I totally switched my life path and career so I could dive head first into learning all about this. Energy healing is so magical because unlike therapy or medication, it helps the body heal on the physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual levels all at once and in parallel. I originally started going to an energy healer to mitigate and heal side effects from chemo. One day about 3 months in, my practitioner said “Oh, you’re ready to transcend anxiety.” I looked at her and laughed right in her face. I’d been anxious since I was 3-years-old, and that’s probably just because I couldn’t remember back any earlier than that. But she did her thing and you know what? I left that office PROFOUNDLY less anxious. It felt like I’d had a 50-ton boulder lifted off me. My hypervigilance decreased markedly, my mood was more joyous and I had far fewer anxious, looping thoughts on a day-to-day basis. It was like 10 years of therapy in 3 months. So, I decided to figure out how that all worked. I’ve have spent the last 15 years studying different modalities and learning all that I can about the beautiful intersection of body, mind and spirit so that I can help others with their healing process, as well.
If you see some of yourself in what I wrote here, please know that you are not alone, that there are people and groups and tools to help you heal. And please know that I see you, I know it’s been so hard, and I think you are an amazing triumph of nature to have survived and thrived the way you have. It’s no small feat, my friend, and I am so very unabashedly proud of you, wherever you are in your healing process.
Join me as I talk to Alison Morris about emotions, spiritual growth, neurology and more!