I needed to pop to my local shopping mall yesterday to pick up a couple of final holiday gifts and found myself stuck in a traffic queue as I joined thousands of others intending to do the same. As we all converged on the shopping centre car park simultaneously, traffic came to a standstill. There was no escape. Given that I’m on a tight writing deadline for my book, time is not something I have to spare at the moment and as I inched my car forward I felt my blood start to boil. My stress response was kicking in.
Short breaths. Heart racing. Muscles tense.
The irony of the situation was that I’ve recently been researching stress for the book I needed to get back and write. Stress is the word we use to describe a negative feeling of being overwhelmed by the amount of responsibilities facing us. It’s the feeling of being unable to meet life’s challenges and demands. And there I was, stuck in the traffic that I could do nothing about, wanting to reach the shops so I could buy some presents, and at the same time needing to get back to work. I was asking myself to do the impossible. No wonder I was feeling stressed. And I wasn’t alone. One look at the faces of my fellow motorists told me they were also feeling overwhelmed, helpless and even enraged.
While this time of year is supposed to be a time of joy, celebration and togetherness, research shows we’re actually more stressed during the holidays than any other time of year. A survey by Relationships Australia found that a third of people feel that their family relationships were highly negatively affected in December due to work-life imbalance and one third of people reported that their family relationships were highly negatively affected due to financial worries. Last minute shopping, all night gift-wrapping marathons, elaborate meal planning - at a time of year when we’re supposed to be relaxing, spending time with family and practising gratitude, our stress levels are through the roof. One survey of 2000 women found that most women rate their stress levels as a seven out of 10 over the holiday period. Doesn’t this defeat the whole point?
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The deeper I’ve delved in stress research, the more I’ve come to understand the solution - and it’s far simpler than you might think. The answer lies in a simple shift in perception.
It was Professor Robert Sapolsky from Stanford University who popularized the idea that stress is all about perception in his 1994 best selling book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. By spending summer after summer studying the health impact of stress on a group of baboons in Africa, Sapolsky was able to explain that imagined stressors can in the long run make us susceptible to disease. Your body turns on a stress response regardless of whether you’re running for your life from a tiger or worrying about what gift to buy your husband. “We turn on the exact same stress response for purely psychological states, thinking about the ozone layer, the taxes coming up, mortality, thirty year mortgages… The key difference there is we’re not doing it for a real physiological reason and we’re doing it non stop,” Sapolsky said in Stress: Portrait of a Killer, a National Geographic documentary. In other words, we’re constantly running away from imaginary tigers in our heads and in the long run, it’s bad for our health.
Scientists are starting to determine the underlying biological functions underpinning the damaging effects of stress. We know for instance that stress shrinks key regions of our brain involved with emotion regulation and impulse control and an extensive body of work done by the husband and wife team of pioneering researchers Ronald Glaser and Janice Kiecolt Glaser from Ohio State University have linked stress irrefutably to immune malfunction. But new research is revealing that it is our perception of the stressful things we face that actually causes all the harm.
In a compelling study demonstrating that the same circumstances can be detrimental to one person and neutral or even beneficial for another, Stanford stress scientist Firdaus Dhabhar teamed up with a Nobel Prize winning Australian scientist, Elizabeth Blackburn and compared the mothers of disabled children with mothers of healthy children. They found that whether or not the mother had a disabled child was not the determinate of cellular ageing. The women who perceived themselves to have a great deal of stress in their lives had aged ten years faster than low stress women regardless of whether they had a disabled child.
As I sat in my car stuck in the chaos of Christmas traffic yesterday I recalled all this stress perception research and realized it was the perfect opportunity to put it into practice. I decided to change the way a viewed the situation. After all, I wasn't in any danger. The tigers were in my head. I’ve written before about the benefits of mindfulness and meditation and a simple two-step thought process you can use to initiate the relaxation response. Instead of flying into a rage, I decided to use the moment of solitude to practice being fully present. I slowed my breathing, relaxed my muscles and started noticing the world around me. Instantly I started feeling better. And then, like magic I noticed the most extraordinary thing. An unusual car spot right in front of the steps that lead directly to the mall was open. Because there were no traditional lines marking the space, none of the other drivers in the traffic queue had seen it, but there was no sign marking it as a parking free zone and it didn’t block anyone’s access. So within ten seconds I was parked and heading into the center. I’d spent an hour sitting in that jam and the spot had been there the whole time; it just took a little mindfulness for me to be able to see it.