Tag Archives: Psychology

Use Stress to Your Benefit

I recently watched a Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, called “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” I always assumed that stress could only be a negative experience, an enemy. Since modern day living is full of stressful events and people, I thought I was doomed to a mostly negative life. Yet, McGonigal’s talk brings up something entirely new for me. Something that will change my view on life and its struggles, for the the better.

In her talk, she brings up the fascinating implications of a study conducted on 30,000 adults in the United Stated over the course of eight years. The researchers asked two simple questions:

How much stress have you experienced in the last year? 
Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?

After the study concluded, the investigators found out that those who encountered a lot of stress had a 43% higher risk of dying (Keller, Litzelman, Wisk, Maddox, Chen, Creswell, & Witt, 2011). However, this finding was only accurate for people who think stress is bad for you.

People who did not think stress was bad for their health, but still experienced a lot of it, had the lowest risk of dying for all people in the study. These folks had a lower chance of dying than people who only had little stress in their lives (McGonigal, 2013).

“People died not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you,” said McGonigal. “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? The science says ‘Yes.’ When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”

However, the relationship between stress levels and health might not be based on sheer positive thinking. Keller et al. (2011) gave a possible interpretation of their results. People who think stress is bad for you will automatically assume later that they actually do have negative health effects just based on their perceived notions, even if their health hasn’t declined based on the amount of stress in their lives.

The physical changes experienced during stress include increased heart and breathing rates. Breathing is how the body gets oxygen, so wouldn’t it be a “good” thing to be getting more oxygen before a class presentation or other “stressful” event? People can even get increased heart and breathing rates during sex, which generally is seen as an exciting, joyous experience.

This is my body helping me rise to the challengewhen you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress responses becomes healthier,” McGonigal claims.

Not only can people change how their view physical responses, optimism may help our health as well. I came across another study that followed students during their first semester of law school. Students that had a positive outlook gravitated towards having higher lymphocyte (cells that play a strong role in the immune system) counts in the body (Segerstrom, Taylor, Kemeny, & Fahey, 1998).

Research shows that people are not automatically doomed by stress. Your personal relationship to stress is what may dictate whether or not your experience the negative effects from it. Furthermore, there are steps that can be taken to change the response to stress in the moment.

First, acknowledge when stress is present in your life. Don’t force it away, yet. “I am feeling stressed right now because I have to submit this paper” or “Dealing with [insert situation here] is making me feel stressed out.”

Next, observe how your body is reacting. Are you hunched over? Are your shoulders tensing up towards your ears? Is your jaw tightening? What happens when you slowly try to bring your physical body back to neutral? I find that when I force something too quickly, it doesn’t always provide the long-term change I’m looking for. The attitude of “Relax! Relax now!” is stressful and fast-paced in itself. Think about it: if you are already stressed out, would being stressed and angry about your stress make it go away?

People deal with stress in numerous ways. Providing a “fix-all” for every individual is not a solution. I drink herbal tea to help me relax. Yet, there are a good amount of people that can’t stand the taste of earthy leaf water! Wouldn’t really help with relaxation, would it? Here is an excellent website about discovering what solutions work for you in the moment, based on personality, situation, and senses.

Do you see stress as a bad thing?
Do you think stress can be used as a tool?
How do you respond to stress?


Interested in watching the TED talk mentioned?


Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L., Maddox, T., Cheng, E., Creswell, P., & Witt, W. (2011). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684. Retrieved August 15, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374921/

McGonigal, K. (TED). (2013, September 4). How to Make Stress Your Friend (Video File). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU

Segerstrom, S., Taylor, S., Kemeny, M., & Fahey, J. (1998). Optimism is associated with mood, coping and immune change in response to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1646-1655.



Take a Chance, Veer off the Paved Path in Coastal Alaska

I just got back from Alaska this weekend. One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting Mendenhall Glacier. Pictures cannot do glaciers justice. Their grandness is truly incredible. They fill valleys between mountains like rainfall fills cracks in sidewalks.

When I arrived at the glacier park, there was a paved trail that went from the visitors center closer to the glacier and a waterfall. Normally I avoid these types of trails if possible; I like to feel the ruggedness of Earth beneath my feet and avoid the crowds. However, it was rainy season up in the North and parts of the cement path were flooded almost six inches deep, so I’m glad I didn’t have to walk completely in mud on this small hike.

There was never a point on this two mile trail that I could look in front or behind where I was walking and not see tourists. This was frustrating, I definitely saw more people than wildlife.

But as I was meandering along the paved path, something caught the corner of my eye. I saw a makeshift rock bench on a nearly-hidden trail, perpendicular to the one I was on. Oh what a nice rock, I wish it wasn’t raining so I could sit and relax for a little bit,” I thought to myself as I walked by… *Pullllll* says the inner sensation. I stutter step before I change directions and commit to walking off the comfortable path.

It’s funny how life rewards you for stepping out of your comfort zone.

This wasn’t just a rest stop, this was a new trail all on its own. I got exactly what I needed. I did not take ten steps before I felt like I was in a completely different habitat. And in truth, I kind of was in a different ecosystem. In ecology, there is something called the edge effect. Basically, certain plants and living organisms are more abundant at the intersection between foliage and meadows, or in my case, forest and sidewalk. I’ll explain the relevance of this soon.

The scenery I saw as I was walking down the paved path was not an honest representation of the majority of the forest that was just a couple of meters behind it. What an illusion!

It went from small shrub-lined concrete to pure rainforest. A place where there is so much rain, the plants, lichen, mosses, and fungi don’t even know what to do with themselves after completely colonizing the trunks and branches of everything in sight.

From this short detour, I gained some HUGE insights…

You truly cannot perceive what lays beyond your personal edge until you take those initial steps. This isn’t only applicable in national parks. What happens when you walk a new way to class, drive a new way to work, try a new type of sandwich or smile at the stranger behind you in the grocery store check out line?

You expand your horizons,
you gain experiential knowledge,
you gain wisdom.

Just because you cannot see the path ahead, it does not mean that it does not exist! All we can do at any moment is to take baby steps. Sometimes this steps aren’t glamorous like how we idealize the future to be. For example, when I was still at school I would spend hours per week looking for international jobs in my field. Yet, this was almost a waste of time. Why? I had to actually finish school, my classes, and my assignments before moving away ever could become a reality. Now that I have taken the initiative (and patience…lots of patience) to finish the forefront tasks, I can move on to bigger projects. Not only this, but more opportunities have presented themselves to me.

Our journey through life is like sailing a boat. We keep our destination in mind and point our vessel in that direction. It takes time to make progress. A storm may come along and knock us around off course, but we always have the choice to return back to where we originally wanted to go or maybe a change in direction is what we needed all along. Keep on sailin’!


Breathing: How the body and mind communicate to each other

**Article originally written for Psych2Go**
“Don’t forget to breathe!” my dad used to tell me during track races. How could I forget to breathe? For whatever reason, it was something that I just forgot to do…and I’m not alone. (Sort of. I’ll get to that soon.) As children, we are encouraged to talk, walk, eat, drink and do other cute things, but what about breathing? Without breathing, we would cease to live in a matter of minutes! Yet, proper breathing is never really taught to us.

Yes, inhalation provides vital oxygen, but the style of breathing determines how that essential nutrient is utilized in our body. Furthermore, patterns of breath are closely intertwined with states of the mind. This happens whether or not people are mindful of each breath. Please take four seconds out of reading right now and give undivided attention to how your breath is…

How was it? Did it feel effortless, deep in the abdomen, and relaxed? What about feeling forced, weak, shallow, and predominantly in the upper chest?

Humans breathe in two different ways: automatically or voluntarily. Automatic breathing is the physiological response of the body to high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. The body naturally increases the breathing rate to get rid of excess carbon dioxide and take in more oxygen (Novotny & Kravitz). We can also voluntarily choose to breathe with different lengths of inhalation or exhalation. This is actual a remarkable ability of the human body for a couple reasons. First, how many other bodily processes can work automatically or voluntarily? I can think of blinking and peeing (if you laugh too hard. Hehe.) Second, we now have a tangible link between body and mind.

The relationship between our breathing pattern and mental state is interchangeable. Meaning, each of them affect the other. This is a benefit to us because we can have more control and intention over our overall psycho-emotional experience. Yay!

Back to the quality of your breath… So just how does this all work? Short and shallow breaths stimulate our sympathetic nervous system response of “flight or fight.” This type of breathing is dominant during anxiety. Long, slow, and deep breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous which helps us to “rest and digest” (Wilson, 2014). Breathing in this manner correlates with peace, relaxation, and calm states of consciousness.

Breathe is the physiological connection between body and mind. It can be used negatively (usually without people noticing) or as a helpful tool when you kindly focus on it.

It may have taken years to develop bad breathing habits, but fret not! The wonderful breath is an infinite mechanism and you can come back to at ANY moment. (Including now.) It’s okay to forget about this natural instrument. It happens. What actually matters is that you remembered again…and again…and again! Be patient with yourself 🙂

Interested in more?

  1. Three surprising ways a deep breath can reduce your anxiety
  2. Breath, body, and mind: The physiology of pranayama
  3. The science of breathing

Sources in article:

Novotny, S., & Kravitz, L. (n.d.). The Science of Breathing. Retrieved July 11, 2015.

Wilson, A. (2014, January 2). Breath, Body, and Mind: The Physiology of Pranayama – Thrive: The Kripalu Blog. Retrieved July 11, 2015.