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The Single Belief Change that Could Save Your Life

Horses nuzzling - oxytocin, stress & resilience - giraffe life

What is it that lets some people roll with life’s ups and downs, while others fall apart when the slightest thing goes wrong? The answer is a quality known as resilience.

Resilience: The ability of people or things to recover quickly after something unpleasant, such as shock, injury, etc (OED)

We all know someone who seems to take everything in their stride. My friend Sophie set up her own consulting agency after being made redundant last year. I’ve never once heard Sophie complain, nor noticed her spirits sag, despite the impact coronavirus has surely had on her fledgling business.

Meanwhile I know someone else whose whole day's ruined by knocking over a carton of milk, or a ten minute train delay.

The good news is, whether you identify more with Sophie, or with my less resilient acquaintance, there are ways you can boost your resilience.

We Need Stress Like Tomatoes Need Weather

First, it helps to recognise that a certain amount of stress is good for us.

When I planted my tomato seedlings outside back in April, I didn’t rush to bring them inside at the first sign of a stiff breeze. I knew that being exposed to the elements would help my plants’ stems grow flexible and strong.

Similarly, if we never experienced any adversity, we humans would miss out on the opportunity to develop the confidence and life skills that together build resilience.

‘That which does not kill us makes us level up,’ as my gamer son would sing.

Secondly, we can reduce the impact stress has on our bodies – something that's easier to do than you might think.

Stress is not the enemy

Everyone knows stress is bad for you, right?

Well, actually, it’s not that simple.

There’s a section of the population who experience absolutely no serious negative health effects even from large amounts of stress.

And the good news is, even if you’re not already a member of this resilient group, you can become one at any time.

For decades, research studies have shown a strong correlation between all manner of diseases and stress. One study tracked 30,000 Americans over eight years and found that people who experienced a lot of stress had a 43% chance of dying prematurely.

But then positive psychologists – the people who study those who are most mentally well, so they can help everyone else – asked, ‘What about the other 57%?’

What was it about the people who experienced as much stress as the 43% who died prematurely, that allowed them to emerge unscathed?

The answer, they discovered, lies in whether or not we believe stress to be harmful.

People who experienced a lot of stress but didn’t view stress as harmful had the lowest risk of dying of anyone - even those who experienced no stress

Or as Kelly McGonigal puts it in her TED talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend, 182,000 Americans in the study died prematurely from the belief that stress is bad for you!

But is changing beliefs as easily said as done?

It can be.

We Can Change Our Beliefs Instantly

Imagine you move to a new town, and for months you drive three times a week through heavy traffic to do your weekly grocery shop.

Now imagine one day your neighbour tells you about a short cut along a pretty road, which cuts the journey time in half.

Would it matter how long you’d been taking the old, long route to the supermarket? Of course not. No matter how long you’d believed the old road was the only way, you’d change your behaviour and start taking the new route immediately.

Of course, not all belief changes are as simple as changing your mind about the best route to go shopping.

But here’s where a few facts about what happens in our bodies when we experience stress can help.

The Miracle Stress Hormone

If I were to ask you to name a chemical the body produces when we’re stressed, you'd probably say adrenaline, or maybe cortisol.

Meanwhile oxytocin, the hormone released when we stroke our cats and cuddle our babies, would probably be quite far down your list of answers.

And while it's true that both adrenaline and cortisol are part of the stress response, unlikely as it sounds, oxytocin is a stress hormone too.

Think about what happened the last time you experienced stress. Perhaps it was when you heard that your employer needs to cut jobs, or you argued with your partner, or your teenager stayed out late and didn’t answer her phone.

Whatever the cause of the stress, your body probably responded in the same way - your heart beat faster to prepare you for action, and you began to breathe more rapidly to send extra oxygen to your brain.

And, at the same time as those external changes are happening, inside your brain, your pituitary gland would have pumped out oxytocin.

The reason we've evolved to release oxytocin at times of stress is to motivate us to seek support when things get difficult, instead of bottling things up and trying to tough it out alone.

And because our bodies are such efficient machines - every part of us designed over thousands of years of evolution to work together in perfect harmony to keep us healthy - oxytocin has another role.

Not only does the ‘cuddle hormone’ act as a natural anti-inflammatory and keep our blood vessels relaxed, but it also strengthens our hearts, helping heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage.

In other words,

the miracle hormone oxytocin - released naturally when things get difficult - can completely reverse any negative effects of stress on our bodies

Giving Self-Care New Meaning

And there’s even more good news.

We don’t have to wait for times to get tough to reap the healing benefits of oxytocin. The hormone is released every time we lend someone an empathetic ear, stroke our pets, make time for yoga, have sex, or do a good deed.

The phrase ‘self-care’ is used so often these days that we’re in danger of forgetting what it means. But when I remember that every time I do something kind – whether for myself or someone else - my body's releasing powerful healing chemicals, the true meaning of self-care is restored.

I hope this post has the same effect on you.

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Further resources

Watch Kelly McGonigal’s excellent talk – How To Make Stress Your Friend. See the condensed, 3 minute version, or watch the full TED talk

For more ideas about how to reap the healing benefits of oxytocin, see 12 Ways to Boost Oxytocin

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If you need a helping hand boosting your resilience, get in touch to find out how cognitive hypnotherapy can help.

Thanks to Jessica Rockeman (Pixabay) for the oxytocin-inducing photo 🧡

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