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The Bear Facts about Stress and Your Body

 

Crack. Snap.

“Kyler” I hissed under my breath, the hairs on my neck standing straight up. He turned to look at me, his pack still dripping from the downpour twenty minutes earlier. The sun was setting behind the Olympics and the temperature was beginning to drop, even in the humid climate.

“What!” He yelled back.

“I think I heard a bear.”

Adrenaline flooded my body, my brain preparing to fight or flee. My muscles tensed. My heart pounded. I forgot my back pain and the water on my eyelashes.

“Emily—look.” He motioned to the rocky riverbed below. From behind the trees, three large elk emerged with a baby trailing behind. I almost collapsed with relief. The stressor subsided, my body calmed, and we kept walking to the campsite.

In life or death situations, stress gives us energy. It makes us powerful. It made our ancestors more likely to survive the bear. But most of us don’t experience life or death situations every day. Instead, we have more mundane stressors—our next exam or a looming presentation at work, for example. And the reaction our ancestors learned can generate negative responses to the types of stress we face today. Sometimes, we experience the same adrenaline as if we are fleeing a bear. Psychologists label this outcome as strain. Strain can make us ill, depressed, or most commonly, unpleasant to be around. But strain does not have to be an inevitable result of stress.

Changing our mindset about stress can change how our bodies react. Normally, when we experience a stressor, our blood vessels constrict. But a recent Harvard study defied the notion that physical reactions are inevitable in a stressful situation. Participants were told by study administrators their body’s response to stress—clammy hands, racing heart, and fast breathing—were positives, preparing their bodies for the situation. The impact of reframing the stress was immediate on the subject’s physical wellbeing. Subjects still experienced secondary symptoms such as fast-paced breathing and sweaty palms, but their blood vessels did not constrict, heart rates stayed normal, and subjects remained relaxed (“Harnessing the upsides of stress”). When encountering a non-life threatening situation, their mind could alter the impact stressors had on their cardiovascular health. Stressors in and of themselves are not the issue. It is our mindset—our negative response to them—that impacts our body.

Contrary to the notion that skydivers are just adrenaline junkies, people who regularly sky-dive have actually honed the ability to have a positive response to an extreme stressor. Instead of reacting negatively to a possible life-threatening situation, they feel delight at the experience.

Redefining our outlook of stress can make all the difference. Next time you experience a stressor, assess whether you’re in a life-threatening situation. If you are, your body has prepared you to run or fight. If you’re not, challenge yourself to see it as your body preparing for a challenge. It might just relax your blood vessels and make you feel better.

 

Works Cited

“Harnessing the upsides of stress” Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/harnessing-the-upsides-of-stress. Accessed 3 January 2019.


Emily Anderson is a first-year MBA candidate at Willamette University. She is a 2017 graduate of Gonzaga University, where she received her B.A. in International Studies. Emily enjoys PACE because of the opportunity to learn valuable career information, improve her analytical and speaking skills, and build partnerships with not-for-profits in Oregon.

 

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  1. 1 Comment(s)

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