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.
I used to work as an occupational therapist for children with autism, ADHD, and other types of neurodivergence. One of the most effective treatment tools we had was the sensory profile because it allowed us to look at how school and home environments conflicted with their brains’ own natural sensory needs.
I think this tool is valuable for all of us. Knowing your sensory profile is immensely helpful, because no matter who you are – neurodivergent or not – your unique sensory profile affects how you interact with your world on a daily basis. In addition, sensory profiles can change after a period of trauma, and knowing how trauma has affected your profile can help you take better care of yourself.
But, let me backtrack for a minute — what is a sensory profile anyway? Let’s start with looking at our senses. Each of us has 8 senses (sorry, M. Night Shyamalan) connected to our nervous system:
Vestibular (sense of head movement in space)
Proprioceptive (sense of body position in space and feedback from joints and muscles)
Interoception (sensations related to the physiological/physical condition of the body like hunger, heart rate, breathing, and more)
Each of us has different likes and dislikes when it comes to each of these senses. For example, some people may love the smell of perfume while others find it overwhelming. Some people may love a big hug and for others that may feel suffocating. Your particular collection of likes and dislikes for each of your sensory systems is your unique “sensory profile.”
But really, it’s too simplistic to say likes and dislikes. This stuff is so intimately tied to your nervous system it can activate either your “happy place” nervous system (parasympathetic) or your “get me the hell out of here” nervous system (sympathetic).
Imagine an environment in an idyllic location, maybe a beach, the forest, or a busy Parisian cafe. You’re wearing the most comfortable clothing you’ve ever found, you just ate some of your favorite foods, and you feel perfectly satisfied — not hungry but not too full. There’s a smell of something (Is it the ocean? Coffee? Petrichor?) That immediately makes you feel happy. Got a good image of all of this? Fantastic — you’ve just described something that fits your “sensory seeking”profile of things you like to have in your environment.
Now let’s do the opposite. Imagine you’re in an environment that you hate —it’s way too loud, or so quiet that you can’t hear anything but your own spiralling thoughts. It’s so hot that sweat is dripping in your eyes. Your clothing is awful. It’s either too tight or way too baggy and the material is creating the most uncomfortable itching sensation you’ve ever felt on your skin. You haven’t had anything to eat or drink in hours and you’re officially hangry. But also, something smells really gross and you just lost your appetite. Got that image in your mind? That’s a scenario that fits your “sensory aversion” profile, or a group of sensations that you’d try to avoid in the world.
When we find ourselves in a situation that fits with our sensory seeking preferences, our whole nervous system relaxes. That sets off a wave of other chemical and energetic reactions in our body that signals safety, security and happiness. When we find ourselves in a sensory adverse situation, our nervous system gets tense, and releases all sorts of stress chemicals that cause feelings that range from discomfort to panic.
(Side note: the reason that this awareness is so important to the neurodiverse community is that sensations that would only cause a mild nervous system reaction for neurotypical folks can cause a panic reaction in someone with an atypical nervous system. This often includes sights, smells, and sounds that are quite common and would go unnoticed by most of the population.)
So, you can see why knowing your unique sensory profile could help you navigate the world with a happier nervous system by seeking out things that make you calm and avoiding those that cause you distress.
Buthow does trauma affect your sensory profile?
Let’s start with a pretty classic example. If you look at someone who has PTSD, let’s say from fighting in a war, they might now have a panicked reaction to an auditory sensation like fireworks or a car backfiring. It’s something that might go unregistered or only cause a mild awareness in people without PTSD, however for someone with PTSD this could cause a full-blown panic attack. Similarly, a woman who has been sexually assaulted may feel panic when she senses someone walking behind her in the supermarket, while for the rest of us we’d just register that there was another human shopping in the same crowded store and our nervous system would interpret it as no big deal.
With complex trauma, it’s more… um, well… complex. If you need a good primer on what Complex PTSD (CPTSD) is, I wrote about it here. Complex trauma happens over the course of years and as a result, our nervous systems, which includes our sensory systems, can slowly change and start to “hardwire” as a response to these small, daily traumatic events. Let me give you a few examples from my own sensory profile.
I have insanely acute hearing. This comes as a result of listening to my abusive mother’s movements around the house. If I heard her come in the front door, move around the house or start talking, I would freeze and listen carefully so that I could ascertain what kind of mood she was in, and therefore what the potential danger level was at that moment. Because of my acute hearing and careful attunement to background noise, I now can’t work in noisy environments. I need absolute silence to work because my sensory systems are hard-wired to listen for danger in any background noise.
Another example would be my high pain tolerance. (Pain is part of your interception and tactile sensory systems.) I didn’t even realize I had a high pain tolerance until I was in the emergency room one night with what turned out to be a kidney stone. The nurse asked me what my pain level was on a scale of 1-10 and I answered that it was a 7 or 8. My boyfriend then added, “If she says 7 or 8, that’s a 10 on most people’s scale.” That was news to me! Afterwards, I realized that my interoceptors had probably been altered by my traumatic experiences. When I felt pain or felt unwell as a child, there was usually one of two reactions from my mother: either rage that I was bothering her with my needs, or an overly dramatic trip to the doctor where she would be in complete hysterics and insist that I undergo every medical test under the sun, and I would be poked and prodded in myriad painful and uncomfortable ways. So, I learned to keep it to myself if I felt pain. Eventually, my nervous system acclimated to that and turned down my pain receptors.
Even though I’m no longer living in that dysfunctional household, both my auditory and interoceptors were wired in a different way via these experiences in my formative years. They are now part of my unique sensory profile.
So, what’s the takeaway here? Now that you know all this cool, new stuff about your sensory profile, how can you actually use it? Well, there are three main ways:
First, make a list of the things that fall under the “sensory seeking” category for you. What are the things that you love to smell, eat, or hear? What kind of fabrics do you like? Do you like big hugs or light touch? What kinds of art do you like to look at? What’s your favorite natural setting — desert, rolling hills, or dense jungle? Then make yourself a “sensory toolkit” where you can have these things handy if you start to feel stressed.
Second, what are your “sensory aversions”? What are the things that make you feel like you want to crawl out of your skin? What smells, sights, noises or environments make you feel stressed out and exhausted? Make sure that you only get these things in small doses or use strategies to help you tune those out. For example, I use my noise-cancelling headphones with no music on when I’m working in noisy environments. That way, I get my own little cocoon of quiet in the middle of a noisy place.
Thirdly, practice self-compassion. (I mean, my advice when dealing with any kind of trauma fallout is self-compassion, really.) If you get stressed by certain sensory experiences, I want you to practice listening to your inner caregiver. Listen to them tell you how smart and resourceful you were to be able to have a system in place to sense the danger coming. Feel them send you so much love and acceptance for who you are, regardless of what your body and mind may be doing at the moment. Imagine what your ideal parent or caregiver would say or do for you to calm you and help you feel safe and sound in this situation. Know that you deserve all of this love and care and more.
I’d love to know what you’ll take away from this post! Did you figure out anything about your own sensory profile? I hope this info can help you care for yourself in the most exquisite and loving way — you deserve nothing less, my friend.
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.
Lately, I’ve been working on unhooking from praise and criticism in how I evaluate myself and my work. I’ve been examining my own unhealthy relationship to praise and how I’ve chased “gold star stickers” as validation for most of my life.
This started in elementary school when I would get praise for doing well academically. There’s a meme that made the rounds a few years ago that was so spot on for me, it made me cringe in recognition.
Oh yes, all of the above. 100%
The challenges that “gifted and talented” kids face later in life can be explained by Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset vs fixed mindset. A growth mindset is where you believe intelligence is malleable and can develop and grow over time. A fixed mindset is one where you believe intelligence is fixed and static. It turns out that when we praise kids for specific abilities or achievements (“That was a great essay!”, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a good athlete!”) as opposed to attributes or intrinsic qualities (“Wow! I’m impressed at how hard you worked on that!” or “That was tough but I’m proud of how you stuck with it.”) we inadvertently stunt their growth mindset and drive them towards a fixed mindset.
Ability-based praise leads kids to believe that labels like “you’re so smart” are true for them and these attributes quickly become part of their self-identity. While this doesn’t seem bad at first glance, when we attach too strongly to something as part of our identity/ego, we then become terrified of it being stripped away. This causes us to default to a fixed mindset in order to preserve our precious identity and we learn to fear the inevitable failures that come as part and parcel of a healthy growth mindset. If trying something and failing becomes something that threatens who we think we are, then failure becomes a painful ego distortion rather than a normal part of learning and growing. The result is that the kids who were praised for abilities are much less likely to want to try challenging tasks than the kids who are praised for attributes, and are more often up for a new challenge.
As one of the “gifted and talented kids” my parents praised me up, down and sideways for my academic achievements. They bragged about it to friends. They told me I had such a bright future ahead of me as a result. They pulled me out of one school and put me into another to better match my intellectual prowess. It quickly became part of my identity and a great source of my self-esteem.
However, the problem with self-esteem is this — what happens when we can no longer do esteemable things? What happens when for some reason or another, we can’t perform at the level that we’ve come to expect?
Let me tell you, it feels like crap.
It feels like shame.
It feels like existential failure.
This became suddenly and abundantly clear to me when I lost a good deal of my cognitive function due to “chemo brain” almost overnight. My memory, information processing abilities, recall, vocabulary, and other markers of intelligence were all severely impacted by chemotherapy and I found myself unable to be the “smart kid” anymore. How could I be the smart kid when I couldn’t even process what someone was saying to me, let alone remember any information that would help me craft a response?
Common words eluded me. Facts and figures and ideas that I’d known by heart were murky at best. And my auditory processing was shot — if someone said something to me verbally rather than writing it down, I had no memory of it. Which made me feel like an idiot when I couldn’t remember something they’d said to me mere hours before. “Don’t you remember? We JUST talked about this, Megan.”
It was a huge slap in the face. And while I’ve recovered a good deal of my cognitive abilities, they’re still not what they used to be. But that sudden loss allowed me to look at my core identity as “the smart one” and how deeply it had been ingrained in my sense of self and ego. Only then could I look at whether that served me or not, and make some conscious decisions about what I wanted my self-concept to be.
So, what’s the antidote to this relentless quest for the gold star fix? And what does it have to do with British reality TV?
I realized after chemo brain hit me hard that I needed to shift my identity to be about attributes rather than abilities. For example, I have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning rather than “I’m smart.” Or, I am compassionate, curious and open-minded about those in my life rather than “I’m a nice person.” Can I love reading and not be smart? Sure can! Can I be compassionate with someone’s suffering and still have good boundaries and say no? You betcha.
During the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching two British reality TV competitions: “The Great British Bake Off” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown.” These shows touch me in a way that I couldn’t quite name until one recent episode of “Pottery Throwdown.” One of the contestants, Roz, was asked to do a task that was way out of her wheelhouse. She finished the task but came in last in the judging. As she’s speaking to the judges about coming in last she says she’s embarrassed. Keith, one of the judges, looks at her with tears in his eyes and says, “Never feel embarrassed, Roz.”
What he’s saying to Roz here is that she should be proud of herself, she should be proud of her attributes of persistence, resilience and grit rather than be embarrassed about her abilities (or lack thereof) at this specific task. You can see the interaction here:
My love of these British reality competitions comes from the culture on these shows of being proud of trying your best, going out of your comfort zone, and being resilient and gritty. These are valued more on these shows than whether you came first or last. It’s not about the gold star or the winner’s ribbon, that’s just icing on the cake. (Yes, I made a baking pun, just for you my fellow GBBO fans.) The core values of these shows are about how extraordinary it is for people to show up with uncertainty, put in the effort, and try something new without knowing how it will turn out.
No wonder I love these shows, they’re models of growth mindset that I desperately need. They feed the part of me that wants to see this in action, the part of me that wants to soak up all of these examples of how to value attributes rather than abilities like a sponge so I can turn around and do the same for myself and others.
Here’s my challenge for you this week — try to think of a time when someone praised you for your attributes rather than your abilities. What did they say? How did it feel?
If you can think of one, please comment on this post or email me at email@example.com and tell me about it. Like I said, I need more models and ideas for how I can do this more for myself.