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.
If you’ve tried mindfulness meditation and haven’t been able to stick with it, I think I may know why.
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing our attention on one stimulus (like our breath or a mantra) and being mindful of any thoughts or other sensations that may take our attention and focus away. The practice is to notice when our mind wanders, and gently bring our focus back to our breath or the mantra again. This practice can be especially challenging for people with CPTSD because many people with a history of complex trauma think and process emotions differently. Here are two main reasons why it’s hard and what you can do to help fix these issues.
Why is it so damn hard?
- A heightened inner critic voice. For many of us that lived through complex trauma, especially emotional abuse, have internalized the voice of our abuser as our own inner narrative. This can lead to frequent thoughts like, “I’m not good at anything” or “There’s something wrong with me, I can’t do this.”
This can make it challenging when thoughts or distractions come up in mindfulness meditation (and they do come up for EVERYONE, even Buddhist monks!) because instead of being able to just let the thought go, we criticize ourselves for “doing it wrong” or “being a failure” for having the thoughts at all.
- Hypervigilance/over planning. In order to survive as children in adverse circumstances, whether that danger was physical or emotional, we became EXCELLENT noticers and planners.
The ability to be tuned in and notice the environment, people’s moods, and read the room was a smart survival strategy when we were in the midst of an ongoing dangerous situation. Oftentimes, we were able to avoid or lessen the abuse if we could read the people around us and preemptively make adjustments to our behavior or the situation and avoid triggering the abuser.
Another strategy that kept us safe and protected to plan for multiple outcomes. Are you someone who thinks of everything that could go awry in any upcoming situation and has not only a plan A, but also a plan B, plan C, and plan D? Then you are an over-planner. Over planning can also look like mentally rehearsing upcoming challenging conversations over and over, or planning every last detail of an event so that there will be as few surprises as possible.
Hypervigilance and overplanning interfere with mindfulness meditation because it makes it especially hard to turn our brains off. Given any moment of downtime, our brains will fill it up with noticing and planning. So as soon as we try to meditate, here comes the tidal wave of thoughts, planning and noticing.
What can you do to fix this?
- Self-Compassion. Cultivating a self-compassionate voice in your head to counter the inner critic is vital for those with CPTSD. I call mine my “inner caregiver” and she does two things when the inner critic comes up. The first is to speak to me with patience, kindness, love and respect instead of criticism. The second is that she tells the inner critic off by saying something like, “Hey! This is our girl. You do NOT get to talk to her like that. She is a gem and we will treat her with the utmost respect and kindness.”
During meditation, this would look like responding to the inner critic’s thoughts with something like, “Oh no, you don’t get to criticize me like that. You know what? I’m just learning this. So it’s okay for me to not be good at it yet, that’s what learning is for!” If it helps to picture a particular character when you are cultivating that voice, that’s fine! My inner caregiver sounds like Carol Kane and one of my clients says Eugene Levy comes when she needs this type of mental TLC.
- Name the type of thought. Another powerful tool when hypervigilance and over planning starts is to name the type of thought. For example, if I find myself rehearsing a challenging conversation I need to have, I’ll stop and think “planning” and then gently come back to my breath. If I’m worried about something in the future, I’ll think, “worrying” and return to paying attention to my breathing. Once I name the type of thought I often combine it with my inner caregiver voice and say something like, “Thank you, brain, for helping me with planning, but that’s not what I’m doing right now. I love you and I’m going to go back to my breath.”
Mindfulness meditation has been one of my favorite tools for healing from CPTSD, but there is a steep learning curve, especially for those who have experienced complex trauma. It took me years to get to the point I’m at today, but now I can’t imagine not meditating each day. I look forward to it as one of the best stress relief tools I have in my toolbox.
If you have struggled with mindfulness meditation in the past, I hope you’ll give these two fixes a try. And let me know how it goes for you!
Ready to hear one of my secrets to happiness? This particular trick is one that combines scientific research with a spiritual practice, one of my favorite things to do.
This strategy is based on the work of Carol Dweck who researches “growth mindset” and how it can positively affect learning and self-esteem. I was first introduced to her work when I was a pediatric occupational therapist working with students with neurodivergence and learning disabilities and it made a huge difference for those students.
The basic idea of growth mindset is an awareness that your intelligence, capabilities and performance are malleable or changeable and can grow over time. (The opposite is a “fixed mindset” such as, “I’m just not good at math.”) You can change your intelligence and capabilities through putting in effort in order to learn and grow (and make mistakes) along the way. Dweck’s research shows that if we can feel good about the process of trying and putting in effort, rather than fixating solely on the result, it leads to more resilience, grit, and better self-esteem.
One of the key components of a growth mindset is learning how to enjoy the task itself and not just the outcome. If you can enjoy the process of trying to learn something new or achieve a goal, then you’re much more likely to stick with it and find satisfaction than if you’re only placing value on the end result — a.k.a. did I succeed or did I fail?
So, how do we shift from a fixed mindset into a growth mindset? The secret lies in a combination of Dweck’s scientific research and an age-old spiritual practice.
- Cultivate a growth mindset. Know that you CAN learn and grow — you are not “bad” at something, you are simply in the process of learning, practicing and evolving yourself into someone who is better at that thing. Make sure to recognize that there can be enjoyment not just in reaching a goal, but in the process of learning and growing as you work towards that goal.
- Practice mindfulness. When you learn how to be in the present moment and keep your mind and thoughts on whatever is right in front of you, you can more easily enjoy the process. If you are thinking ahead to whether this will succeed or fail or if you’re feeling stressed about if you’re doing it right, you won’t be able to enjoy the moment. Each moment we have can be enjoyable just for itself, regardless of what happens next. Working on a hard problem can even be fun, like a good challenge, when we’re not tied up in worrying about whether this particular effort will be the one that succeeds.
The science shows that both of these things — cultivating a growth mindset and practicing mindfulness — lead to the release of two “happy chemicals” in our brains, dopamine and serotonin. So, if you practice these things in tandem, you may find yourself with a very happy brain on an awesome natural high.
I should note that this shift to a growth mindset can be particularly hard for trauma survivors, especially those of us who grew up with parents with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. The problem is that as children, our success at a task could often trigger our parent with NPD or BPD as we took the spotlight away from them, so we learned to keep much of our happiness under wraps. In addition, many of our behaviors and actions were centered around proactively preventing and avoiding narcissistic scorn or rage, so tasks were often filled with anxiety, hypervigilance and perfectionism, lest we “get it wrong” and trigger our parent. This made it quite difficult to enjoy the process.
Dweck asks us to look at if we have, “a fixed-mindset reaction when you face challenges. Do you feel overly anxious, or does a voice in your head warn you away? … Do you feel incompetent or defeated? … Do you become defensive, angry, or crushed instead of interested in learning from the feedback?” The type of learned helplessness that comes from growing up with a parent with NPD or BPD sounds very similar to what Dweck describes here. If this sounds like you, please give yourself extra grace and love when trying the process to shift that I describe above. A healthy boost of self-compassion and shadow work may be helpful, too.
If you try this process, I want to hear about what you find! Drop me a note and let me know, I’d love to hear from you.
Just before I was offered the chance to die, I really had to pee.
I was 5 months into my chemo treatment and I was a wreck, both physically and emotionally. At this point, I was unable to get myself out of bed, I was nauseated all the time, and I couldn’t keep food down. I had no energy to move my muscles and I hurt everywhere, all the time: migraines, body aches, joint pain, nerve damage, and muscle pain. I didn’t know there were so many places where you could feel pain on a human body, to be honest.
In official medical terminology: I was a shitshow.
I was home alone in bed, trying to rest or meditate or do something, ANYTHING, to distract myself from the pain and nausea. It was at this point, I realized that I had to pee. I then realized there was no one home to help me get to the bathroom and I was too weak to sit up in bed, let alone make it to the bathroom myself. (This was before the days of cell phones, so I couldn’t quickly get hold of anyone, and both my partner and roommate were at work.) This was a new low for me – I hadn’t ever been too weak to sit up in bed before, but 10 rounds of chemo had finally led me to this level of incapacity.
I ran through my choices:
- Wet the bed and lay in the mess while I waited for someone to come home to help me clean myself up and change the sheets.
- Roll out of bed and try to drag myself along the floor to the bathroom. I thought I could make it, but I didn’t know if I’d be able to get up on the toilet, or have the energy to make it back to the bed once I was done.
- Try to wait and hold it until someone came to help me.
None of these sounded very pleasant.
Right at that moment while thinking about which terrible option was the most viable one, I finally lost my shit.
I started to cry — big, heavy wailing moans with tears and snot coming down my face.
“I don’t want to do this anymore. I can’t take it, it’s too much.” I thought.
I just wanted it to end. I’d had enough of the pain, the nausea, the fear, and the suffering. Through my tears I felt myself drift off and close my eyes. I started to feel like I was floating.
Then, I heard a voice, crystal clear and with a calm, loving presence I’d never felt before. It said, “It’s okay. You can let go if you need to.” All at once, I knew what it meant. The voice was giving me permission to die at that moment, if I wanted to. It was letting me know my body was weak enough that I could just release this life, let go, and drift off to death.
At the same time, it was showing me what it would be like once I’d let go and died. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I would rejoin a larger awareness, my fellow explorers of this consciousness, in a place of oneness where there were no bodies, no individuality, no time, no pain, and no suffering.
I could sense that I was still crying, but now it was from elation, from experiencing pure freedom, love and oneness. I could feel the web and nodes of connected consciousness that is our true state, our spiritual self. I felt 100 % seen and understood. I cried tears of relief as I finally knew what it was like to return to my spiritual home.
I saw very clearly that when we die, we release from our bodies, almost like taking off a tight shoe, and we return to part of a larger consciousness. It’s the biggest sense of relief I’ve ever felt. This consciousness does not experience time and space like we do. There is a calm tranquility in this state. The best way I can describe it is the serene grace of just “being” with no sense of “doing.” There is an expansiveness and a slowness that’s exquisite.
There’s no sense of worry, no guilt, and no pressure. There’s no sense that I’m not worthy or not good enough or need to do better, because there is no “I” to experience that, only the sense of connectedness and love that is universal consciousness. It’s a sense of being accepted beyond anything that we could experience here on Earth because there is no way to have any experience other than feeling completely enfolded and wrapped by love and connection.
I had no awareness of my body or of the pain and suffering I’d been experiencing only moments before. I knew that if I stayed in this place, I would no longer feel any pain, I would finally be free from the suffering. I saw all of this so clearly, and I knew it was a choice I had to make. “How could I not want to stay?” I thought.
It was so alluring.
I would finally be free.
Suddenly I felt a jolt, I sat bolt upright, and heard my own voice as I screamed “NO!!” at the top of my lungs. I returned to my body with a terrible rush. My heart whomped and raced as a massive burst from my adrenal glands restarted it and returned it to a normal rhythm.
I wasn’t ready to go. It wasn’t my time.
I was still sweaty and filled with adrenaline as I recognized that I had actually sat up in bed– something I hadn’t been able to do a few minutes before. As the adrenaline subsided, I tried to make sense of what I had been shown.
I knew without a doubt that I’d seen what happens when we die. I’d returned to the place where we go between lives.
I don’t know if I can express how peaceful and beautiful it was. I wish I could show you, just for a minute, what it was like because I want you to know where you came from and where you’ll return to. I want you to know how loved you are. I want you to know it feels to be held as one with the larger consciousness that knows you are precious and treasured simply because you are part of existence. It adores you because you are part of it and it is part of you.
You are a sliver of god, of universal consciousness. You are source energy incarnate, here to experience what it’s like to be human for 60 or 80 or 100 years. It’s part of the deal that we forget who we really are, a hologram of universal consciousness that holds all of awareness inside of us.
Never doubt yourself, my friend. Never doubt that you are sacred and phenomenal and connected to all that is. I think we often walk around feeling alone and disconnected and I want you to know that’s not true, it’s an illusion that’s a side effect of incarnation.
I want you to know that all of this is temporary. Incarnating as human is like deciding to take a trip to Machu Picchu – it’s only for a limited amount of time, and you know it will be breathtakingly awesome at some moments, and full of mosquito bites and altitude sickness at others. But despite the challenges you’ll face, you decide to do it anyway, you’re EXCITED to do it, in fact. You want to go to have the experience, and you know that you get to return home when you’re done with the trip.
And what happens when you return to where we all come from? I want you to know there is no judgement and there is no evaluation of whether you were good or bad, whether you did it right or wrong. You came here as an adventurer, an explorer. When you’re done, you come home to only gratitude, appreciation, and newfound knowledge of experiencing consciousness as only a human can.
So when you look at others today, whether they are friends, strangers or enemies, please know that you are made of the same stuff as they are. We are all here together, exploring this complex, paradoxical and often messy human incarnation experience. And we will return together, to pure love and connectedness, with open arms. So why not start now? Embrace your fellow beings, help them (and yourself) feel a little taste of that connectedness and acceptance that we all long for and in fact, has been there all along.
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:
- Visual (sight)
- Auditory (hearing)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Gustatory (taste)
- Tactile (touch)
- 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.
But how 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.