Redefining Stress

How to train your brain to conquer anxiety and depression

Retraining the Brain for Worry Stress - Part I

Retraining your brain to deal with the strain of worry
As part of the first part of stress management taken from The Stress Answer, I want to lay the ground work for our most dangerous stressor; worry. This is the layman's word for all the "normal" issues that cannot be balanced against the blessings we all realize at one level, but gets overshadowed over time.

We all know about stress, especially now when our future retirement funds are singing into air and our lives are no less hectic with a change in government leadership. Uncertainty is the rule of the day. While we have many sources of stress in our lives, stress is generally driven by work and money issues followed by health concerns and children. But it's not the event that causes us stress; it's our lack of flexibility and rigid reactions to the triggers. More to the point, it's our perception of the event or the thought that creates the storm within our brains that eventually erupts into the feeling state we call "stress."

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Although we measure the peripheral systems of the body for stress levels (e.g., blood vessel dilation, muscle tension, skin conductance, etc.), the center of most stress is in our brains. Stress isn't an abnormal brain function. Rather, it's vital for our very survival. Too much stress is bad...except when that's not true (e.g., getting psyched up for a competition). Having zero stress may be equally bad (e.g., you wouldn't know when to run from a dangerous situation); and having chronic stress is definitely bad for your health (e.g., heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes etc.). Therefore, like other forms of extremes, we would never want to totally eliminate the mechanisms of adaptation, but we do want to bring the process back into a normal cycling pattern.

The operative word for reaching restorative patterns is to achieve healthful "cycling" - which refers to some pattern of flexibility, rather than a standard of responses considered to be healthy. In other words, it's not so much the extremes, as it is our rigidity that wounds our constitution of health. For example, the problem isn't that we may have high blood pressure for some period of the time; that's normal. The problem is when our blood pressure is constantly elevated. Thus, it's your adaptability to respond to crises and challenges with the correct levels of blood flow that protects or damages our health and mental stability.

Stress cycling is basic to the building of strength, even muscles. When a person is weightlifting to develop muscle strength, the increase in strength doesn't occur during the lifting process. In fact, the pulling action of the muscles on the bone creates microscopic tears. It's during period of rest that that those tears heal which makes the muscle tissue become stronger.

Training for Cycling Stress

The implications for stress management and brain plasticity are to train for mental flexibility, thereby creating new neuro-pathways, instead of rigidity. The more adaptive a system is, the more capable it becomes to responding in appropriate and/or alternative ways. Just like how muscle tissue is strengthened, training for mental flexibility requires a measured application of stress to all systems, so that both elevated levels and restorative levels are achieved. To facilitate a healthy system, you need to learn flexibility and embrace a range of alternative choices in responding to stressors. For example, you need to learn to be able to increase your power in order to face challenges and think creatively in problem-solving - and to do so in balance to gain more strength. This cycle is not unlike the marital arts principle of focusing on those threats that are real and restoring your energies by absorbing the restorative energies after the battle. This is the principle of Asian teaching in yen yang of stress management, the yen being the extension of focus and the yang being the reception of focus.

This principle relates to training a professional athletic team for stress. Although everyone on the team agreed that they were over-stressed, they still needed the adrenaline push to help them perform at the highest levels. They were right. So, I taught them both ends of the spectrum: I taught them how to employ and channel their high energy into focused power when they needed it, but I also taught them how to restore themselves through relaxation. In other words, I taught them to have balance in their lives, and the approaches worked well.

The largest portion of what we term as "stress" is worrying too much. Everyone worries to some extent, and clearly worry can serve as a constructive bridge to preparation for future problems. But too many of us worry out of balance with reality. We worry about too many things, and even become apprehensive when we think we're not worrying enough about something. As one of my patients bravely admitted, "If I don't worry about something happening, then it will happen." This type of magical thinking is not productive. We need to conquer our fears in more constructive ways to stop the chronic destruction.

Healing Practices of Stress

There have been hundreds of stress management programs that purport to relieve stress. I've explored everything from crystals to acupuncture, and everything works to some extent... if you believe they'll work. However, there are some paths that actually can harm you. For example, if your idea of stress relief is coming home, popping open a few cans of beer while you watch wrestling matches until you fall asleep, you are messing with fire. That is avoidance, which is bad, and candidly, emotionally lazy.

Stress management approaches have verbs in them for a reason: You have to do something to make change happen. For some of my patients, the biggest challenge I ever gave to them was having them commit to setting aside 40 minutes a day (divided into two 20-minute sessions) when they are not talking on the phone or doing something else. That was an incredibly tough step for some of them to take, but it was also necessary one. If you're not willing to commit part of your day to restoration, you're setting yourself up for failure. Don't do that.

In perpetual stress storms, the goal becomes operational in terms of flexibility of brain plasticity and facilitating your ability to let go of stress ties. The broader the range in your responses the more adaptable and freer you can be to deal with the upcoming stresses and moves on. Based on the principles of brain plasticity, I will give you some ideas on exercises you can do to strengthen these major stress skills.

G. Frank Lawlis, PhD, is principal content and oversight adviser of the Dr. Phil Show.

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