Brain Science – Episode #30
I'm just so stressed
understanding and navigating our responses to stress
Stress is something that we will inevitably encounter throughout our lives. It isn’t all bad or maladaptive, but how we manage it can make a significant difference in our lives. The degree of stress we feel impacts how we show up in the world including both how we relate and how we do the work before us each day.
In this episode, Mireille and Adam discuss the impact of stress on our systems including the role of different stress hormones on our immune system, cardiovascular system and our metabolism. Like many other conversations on previous episodes, we provide research relative to the value of relationships as having close connections helps us all combat the stress that loneliness can cause as well. When we utilize resources to support us as well as set limits on what we expose ourselves to and focus our attention to, we have the opportunity to better navigate the stresses of our lives.
Notes & Links
Click here to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
I’m really excited to have this conversation today because I think it’s just so applicable to each and every one of us. I was doing some research around this topic of stress, and I found a really interesting quote. This was done by Nancy Sin, who is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. And she said that “In stressful situations like this, like a pandemic, there are physiological responses in our bodies. Our stress hormones increase. We prepare to fight or flee,” she says. “And as this pandemic continues and isolation drags on, we’re having a lot of these physiological adaptations each time we feel stressed, each time we feel worried. And over time, these repeated hits physiologically and psychologically can accumulate.” She goes on to say, and I quote, “You need a lot of physical energy for your cognitive work. We’re doing so much worrying and rumination. There’s a lot that’s going on that’s sucking up our energy.” And I just think, yes.
Yeah. Well, we have this thing around here, it’s Thursday again. Because for some reason, the time moves by fast, and for some reason, it’s always Thursday. I feel like it’s Groundhog Day in some cases. But it’s Thursday again so fast, and it’s this aspect of just time moving on so fast, and the same things happening each day, energy getting sucked up… Not that we have a ton so much stress out about, because things are leveling out, but there’s still a lot of life that’s changed. We’re still isolated. We’re still disconnected from a lot of the different things we’re doing.
I’d realized a month or two after we were scheduled to take a vacation that, “Oh, hey, we didn’t take a vacation this year.” So maybe that’s why I’m still a little– I’m getting burnt in terms of like, “What? What happened? Where did summer go?” I feel like it’s still March. Even when I look at the calendar, I’m like, “August?” I get pissed off. Like, “What? How did that happen?” because I feel like it’s just moved by so fast, and what happens is we get stressed out. You know this very well Mireille, stress - and I hate to be like this, but stress kills.
It has so many negative effects on our mind, on our body, our relationships… And part of today’s conversation is just to examine the impact of stress, particularly on our energy, which leads us to be our best selves, as we say, we want people to be on this show, and to live lives that are full and enjoyable.
Yeah, exactly. It’s interesting because– I mean, I can totally relate. I very recently woke up, and for a good portion of the day, I seriously kept thinking it was a different day. I had to keep reorienting around “No, that’s not yet.” But it’s in part because we’ve lost the structure and consistency that we had. I don’t go to my office in the way in which I once did. I don’t have the same markers or cues amidst my week that helped me provide an external structure that supports my internal structure. So that’s really at the heart of what we’re talking about today, is really this interplay between what’s going on outside of us and how that affects what’s going on inside of us, and then the choice that we make in response to that hybrid.
Yeah, I like that aspect too, because in the tech world, there’s conferences all the time. So for me, I’m more on the fact that we didn’t get to do OSCON this year, which is a big conference for us as Changelog media doing that. But then it’s also time for Jerod and I to get to reconnect and hang out together, because hey, we’re not in the same place every single day, and we do rely upon others’ energy or each other’s energy to get pumped up about what we’re doing. So we’re kind of– not the word lacking, but we miss those moments. Those are things that we mourn. And then you multiply that by other people that are like, “Well, my community isn’t always near me. Some of my community lives in London.” Across the pond, as we say. Some of my community lives in Japan, maybe even, or South America. So you miss out on those connections.
Yes, yes. So a couple of things to help establish the framework as we talk today is that both behavior and cognition, or both behavior and what we think play a role in determining what we find stressful. And that as individuals, we’re varied, but there’s three principal ways in how we respond to potentially stressful situations. The first has to do with how we interpret something. What comes to mind is public speaking. It’s like one of the top three fears that people have. Well, not everybody, especially people who are seasoned speakers, have the same perception of threat, whereas someone else could be like, “You want me to do what? No, no, we don’t do like that.”
“You picked the wrong guy.”
Totally. And so if I perceive a situation as threatening, then my brain is going to initiate behaviors that avoid the threat. Or alternatively, it can produce behaviors that can increase danger. I mean, like, I can’t stop; I’ve started this ball in motion, and it’s like you can see the accident just unfolding before your eyes. So that is really significant, because not everybody sees the same things as stressful.
Secondly, it involves the condition of our bodies. People, generally speaking, those who are in good physical condition, handle strenuous exercise far better than those not in shape. Thus, our behaviors around exercise are important, because exercise can have this rapid effect to increase muscle glucose utilization, like how does our body respond to glucose. These imbalances that can lead to obesity and diabetes can increase the vulnerability of an individual to stress, which, of course, as we’ve talked about in other shows, also has or can have a genetic component.
So the sum of that is - our bodies are different, but the behaviors we engage in and what’s going on internally make a difference in terms of how we respond externally. Elaborating on that, or adding additional clarification, then certain personal behaviors like “What’s my diet? What do I eat? Do I smoke? How much alcohol do I consume?” are also likely to be altered by stress, because they’re helpful with coping. So if I go to pick up a beer as opposed to going outside for a walk, or doing some meditation, that’s going to have an impact on my body’s response to stress. No surprise.
Well, yeah. It would make sense to do that, but it’s definitely around choices. If you’re stressed, move a little, or find a way. And it doesn’t have to be like, “Oh, exercise freak.” Or you don’t have to be crazy about going to the gym, or I guess your home gym now… What they call pain caves. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, Mireille…
Pain caves. I love it. [laughs]
You make them in your houses. They’re not men or women caves, they’re pain caves. Or they’re not theater caves, or hangout caves; they’re pain caves. It’s where you go to impact pain. But it takes a specific choice to do that, as opposed to, say, the Easy button, which might be like, go to the store or call up Uber Eats or something else that delivers it to you and brings you those beers or those wines and consume.
Or the chips.
Or the chips…
Or the pizza, you name it. Correct.
So let me caveat that. There’s nothing wrong with that for a time. If you need to do that, I mean, you can probably disagree with me if you want, but I think for a time, that might be okay, but that’s not a forever thing. That’s not a long-term coping mechanism that’s, that’s healthy. So maybe for a moment, that’s okay, but get up. Get up and move.
So that’s why this is really important, because we’re talking about stress that can be situationally based, that’s like, “Oh, there’s a surge or a crescendo, and then a decrescendo.” Or there’s stress that’s prolonged, repeated that results in a chronic stress or strain on our brains and our bodies. So this is - at the heart of it - our behavioral responses to challenge can lead to either protective factors or damaging effects in the form of what we’re going to talk about more, which is called allostatic load. Are you familiar with that? Have you heard of that term?
I have not.
Yeah, I love it. I geek out hard with this, because I discovered this a couple of years ago when I was reading Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Sounds good, huh?
Yeah. I wonder why.
[laughs] So what they talk about is differentiating homeostasis from allostasis. Homeostasis is defined as the stability of our physiological systems that maintain life. So pH, body temperature, glucose and oxygen levels… There’s a narrow range of their respective setpoints. So when an animal encounters a stressful situation, it will surge in response. The body will produce cortisol, adrenaline, adapt, and then it will return to that baseline.
Allostasis is totally different. This is really what’s at the heart of stress for humans, and that stability is achieved through change. So the mediators of allostasis include, but are not totally limited to hormones of the HPA access, which I think we’ve talked about in some prior episodes… But HPA stands for hypo-pituitary-adrenal,; say that a lot, fast. But it’s involved with emotional regulation and reactivity, as well as there’s catecholamines and cytokines. So it distinguishes homeostasis from those essential-for-life systems, and those that maintain these systems in balance. So what happens in allostasis is there can be an excessive production of some of these things or an inadequate production of others. So it’s how our bodies mediate aspects of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemical messengers.
So you could either be really good at it or really bad at it.
So high or low.
And a better version of that would be homeostasis, which everything is just equaled out, normalized all the time.
Right. So just like you were talking about, Adam, in saying some of these things aren’t bad, we’re not calling these out and saying they’re bad… However, what happens is our body reacts to some of the over-activity that prolonged choices can impact, and that contributes to diseases. I would say first, it contributes to inflammation, and then disease activity, which is not what any of us want, especially nowadays. When we’re talking about this, that’s why things like exercise and diet and sleep and relationships, and how we think can make a significant difference in terms of how we respond to things.
Yeah. Well, I think if you gotta manage traffic, or input-output… We’re humans, we’re individual bodies with brains, we’re physical beings, we require food, we require oxygen even. So I think about all the ways that things from the outside of my body enter in to fuel me. So it’s relationships, that’s a psychological entrance. You’ve got air that comes in through your lungs, that makes sense. So what’s the quality of all these things? So when we say be your own scientist, examine these inputs, and then how that impacts your output, which is who you are and how you are and what you do, and what you give to the world. And if you examine the quality of your food, the quality of your air, the quality of relationships, then these things, they all impact this allostasis, homeostasis. It’s gonna enable or disable those things.
Yeah. So we’re going to be talking about some different, more sciency terms to help you guys understand a little bit more of what happens. And so one of the things is glucocorticoids. These are named that for their ability to promote the conversion of proteins and fats to usable carbohydrates. So they’re super adaptive or help us by replenishing the energy reserves after a period of activity, like running from a predator. But they also act on the brain to increase appetite for food and increase locomotor activity so that it can regulate more of our energy, input and expenditure.
So like you were mentioning, Adam, with the choices we make, it’s super helpful if I’m trying to run a few miles, but not as helpful if I’m trying to grab a box of Oreos, or while I’m trying to write or do some work. That inactivity or lack of energy expenditure creates this situation where these chronically elevated glucocorticoids can impede the action of insulin to promote glucose uptake. So it’s like I’ve got too much of this thing and I’m not expanding it or putting it in a way that actually helps my brain and body defrag.
So it’s too much fuel.
Yeah, yeah. Yep. So interestingly enough, one of the results of this interaction is that insulin levels increase. And so together, insulin with glucocorticoid elevation promote the deposition of body fat and that combination promotes the forming of the plaques in our coronary arteries.
Well, and weight gain is directly linked to insulin levels. So insulin level spike, fat deposits, obesity, weight, all that is related to high insulin levels and spikes.
Right. This is why– I’m sure you’ve heard it said or people comment about trying to manage their weight or lose weight, but they’ve got a lot of stress going on, and they really struggle to lose weight. Well, this is why. Because it’s stuck in your brain, and your body is repeating this cycle like a song on repeat, and there isn’t a hiccup to reset it and tame it back.
When we look at this a little bit further or broader, we can talk about allostasis in the brain, and so that involves the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol in response to a stressful event and promotes memory consolidation so that you stay out of trouble. We’ve talked about this with learning. The higher the emotional intensity of something, my brain tends to vacuum seal it, so that I learn, like, “Don’t touch the hot stove, Mireille.”
But now moving to where it’s maladaptive - it’s when the stress is continued over a significant period of time. Our neurons can atrophy, which impairs our memory, whereas other neurons grow, which tends to enhance fear. Not what we want. And I think that’s what a lot of people are struggling with right now, of going, “There’s so much uncertainty. We don’t have our connections, relationships. We don’t have the structures that we did have in terms of our routines or daily responsibility.” And so it just can feel a lot more threatening. Period.
Yeah. Not to mention, though, that whenever something does happen, it could be small or large, in terms of, say, you can stub your toe. It’s like, “Oh, I’m gonna go to a hospital.” So now things are super– people tend to avoid or want to avoid hospitals because hey, you’re exposed to more people. So even little events get blown out of proportion because everything– because the stress levels… It’s kind of compounding problems. Small problems become bigger problems because it’s compound fear, so to speak.
Yeah, and we’ve talked about the memory system with our brain with the amygdala and the hippocampus. So our hippocampus is responsible for memory. Amygdala is part of our emotional seat of our brain. And what happens is that our brains actually– we can have overactivity with those adrenals and shut off our stress response to bring us back down, and then there happens to be this atrophy of certain neurons in the hippocampus which shuts down our brains ability to regenerate. The scary part that I’ve found is some of this atrophy in our hippocampus can actually be picked up on MRIs.
Is that right?
Yeah. So this is why being in charge of what we think and being deliberate about what we focus on is so, so, so important… Because look, to some degree– I mean, I’m not in charge of a fair amount of things in life, but what I am in charge of is my response to it. So there is a lot of uncertainty across the world in different ways, and people are facing different stressors, for sure. But going, “What is my response to that going to be? Am I going to focus on “the sky is falling, I don’t have any structure. I don’t have any support. What next ball is going to drop”? Or am I gonna go, “What am I in charge of today? What things can I do to move the needle one degree in the direction that I want to go?” That is the difference with changing our brain and going “What’s going to help me defrag, get rid of this underlying stress, so that I can do something more beneficial for my brain and my body?”
In particular to energy and stress that relates to your energy, getting to that root cause is the key… Because for some, if you identify what that root cause might be that’s causing you stress or draining you of your energy… I have my own example which I can share… But once you find that root cause that stressing you out or making you think in these non-normal ways of your typical normal, with your thinking - once you unlock that, everything else is more clear.
So for me, for example, I get stressed out, I just start thinking differently, I would say, based upon my diet. My diet, my sleep, the way I think, obviously, things we’re talking about here… But diet for me is huge. Cutting out sugars, cutting out gluten, those things alone… And then just timing when I eat. They call it intermittent fasting; you may have heard it. Essentially, it’s just like determining when you eat. So not so much starving yourself, which some people might say. It’s just more like, I don’t eat past 7 pm. I generally skip breakfast. I eat a light lunch and dinner like normal. But then I also manage what goes in. So I’m cutting out all the sugars that might be in there… Those things, that alone for me, is my root cause, for example, of recent stress or things that got me off my normal kilter.
So once I understood that and figured that out, I was able to get back into typical Adam, normal Adam, great attitude, all this good stuff, energy. Whereas before I was lower energy, and just down and out and not happy as much as I had been in prior months or weeks. So the root cause is important; whatever your root cause might be different for you. It might be a relationship. It might be an environment. It might be intake of certain things. But for me, I’ve got to have those things in place, and everything else will begin to fall into place, because I can have a far more clear mind to attack the world.
Yeah. It’s so interesting how the way in which we process information changes when we’re stressed versus not. I mean, I can remember two times where it was just so many different things coming at me and seemingly, I thought some tasks felt really hard or overwhelming like, “Gosh, I just don’t have time to get to that.” Whereas once I was a little calmer and had some space to sit down and focus on it, I was like, “Oh my word. This was so simple.” So it’s further helped me learn myself to go when I’m evaluating something as that, it’s a huge lightbulb for me, that’s like “Mireille, you need to go do something to calm down and exchange this energy because you’ll be able to come back and process that once you do.”
Like we talked about in that episode on Step Away to Get Unstuck, and how it seems counterintuitive to be like, “I’m going to walk away from this problem.” But part of managing stress is going like. “My brain can’t take in more information in that way at this moment. So what other things can I do to buffer it or alleviate the load?”
Right. Well, in some cases too, it’s a detox of sorts. Like strip out the things that are inhibiting you and just defer them, even for a week or two weeks, some period of time so that you can have a reset. And this is part of that whole be your own scientist idea. It’s like, this gives you a chance to experiment. Detox from the thing. So it might be detox from social media. I hate to keep saying that, because I feel like that’s the easy button to push; it’s like, “What do you detach from?” But I did this recently. I detoxed from– in the nighttime. So when I went to bed, I used to take just my phone to bed with me, and I stopped. I only took a device that had Audible and Calm on it, and that was it, and an alarm. So instead of having the ability to go on YouTube or get lost in email or get stressed about other things that will just distract me, I detox from this one thing that helped me to refocus on, “Okay, get good sleep. Get to sleep on time. Get to sleep in healthy ways, etc.” So that was my detox.
It’s so interesting you mentioned that, because I found this awesome podcast done by The Happiness Lab. She had Catherine Price, who’s the author of How to Break Up With Your Phone, on and talked about good screens and bad screens, and that especially in our current climate, so to speak, or environment, that we want to be deliberate about how we use our screens to go, “Am I using it for connection or am I on social media for just mindless scrolling?” And it isn’t actually helping me to be a better version of myself, nor manage my stress. It’s literally amplifying it because I’m looking at what everybody else is doing, and then starting the whole comparison game.
Yeah, yeah. It’s an unfortunate thing, honestly, it really is, that we’re just so connected. And when we find more things to get that are interesting, we can get lost in that. And we get disconnected from the “What am I optimizing for?” Or if I’m optimizing for good sleep patterns, taking that phone to me doesn’t help me enable that, because it can be, not every single time, but it can be a distraction. We’re more connected than we ever have been before, which has good and bad signs to being hyper-connected as a society. But it’s not really natural for us to be in this high paced, always-on society. And when we take our phones with us, we take that always-on society with us, or at least, the temptation to dip our toes into that water. And the more we get exposed to, the more we want to do, and the more we do, the more we burn out, and that is an enabler.
Yes. Yeah. So I think it’s so important too– just a reminder, as we talk today, some of the deleterious effects we’re talking about that can occur are prolonged and severe. Just because you do some of these things, some of the time, don’t panic. There’s always an opportunity for change. And really, it involves a self-assessment like, “Where am I at?” So we’ll talk about that later in the show, but I want to talk about some of the impact on our immune system, which is important. That acute stress, severe stress promotes immune function by enhancing the movement of immune cells to places in the body where it’s needed to defend against a pathogen. So it’s like, “Yay, I got all my warriors come into play and they’re gonna save me.” But chronic stress uses that same hormonal mediators to suppress the immune function. So it’s like it doesn’t let my warriors out to defend what’s going on in my body.
Because you’re always in defense.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s like– I mean, they’re just worn out. It can’t mediate. It can’t do anything to support in the same way, which is why sleep makes such a difference, foods make a difference, and why we’re always talking about the role of inflammation.
One of the things that I found was super-interesting because I’ve looked a lot more at social relationships and loneliness, given this pandemic life… And there’s an interesting study done by Steven Cole, who’s a doctor and a professor of medicine at the University of UCLA. Well, UCLA University of California, Los Angeles. And he did a study back in 2015 that provided more clues around why loneliness can actually harm our overall health. So what they looked at, he and his colleagues looked at gene expressions and leukocytes, which are white blood cells that play key roles in the immune system’s response to infection. And they found that these leukocytes of lonely participants, both humans and this other species, showed an increased expression of genes involved in inflammation and a decreased expression of genes involved in antiviral responses. Genes, people. Genes. Building blocks of our body.
We’ve talked about that before. So loneliness can make you inflamed and decrease the expression of genes that involve essentially being equipped in a time like we’re in.
Yeah, exactly. So this is why I think it’s so important to go “One of the ways in which we moderate stress is with people.” You need people, but you can’t be beside people. But you need people.
Yeah, that’s so crucial.
Find people. Find the right people.
Well, precisely. Because again, we tend to listen to the people that we spend the most amount of time with. We tend to think similarly. We tend to make similar choices. I mean, I think about friends all the time that are like, “Have you been here? Did you see this? Did you get that product?” I mean, it’s like my friends are walking marketing machines for my life.
Well, they have a lot of input, that’s for sure. And they always say that– I mean, someone’s gonna correct me on this thing… But it’s essentially, your friends influence who you are. So if you hang out with - I hate to say this like this - but losers, if you hang out with people that don’t have the same aspirations and ambition that you do, if they have lesser than that or not in alignment, then you’re probably going to mimic them. But if you’re around people who are high achievers, have ambition, they’re trying to lead a good life or have a good family or build a great career, whatever might be important to them and to you, then you’re going to emulate those you’re around. There is a saying that condenses what I just said, though, much more concisely. And if you know that, put it in the comments because I want to know it, because I forgot it right now.
Yeah, yeah. So we’ve talked about the brain, body, the cardiova– well, the immune system. But I want to talk about the impact of stress on our cardiovascular health. So getting up in the morning requires this increase in blood pressure, and reapportioning the blood flow in our body so that we can stand up without fainting. Important, I would say.
Yeah, I don’t want to faint when I stand up. I want to stand up like a normal person.
Right. So blood pressure rises and falls throughout the day as dependent upon physical and emotional demands and the changes, so that we get blood flow according to what our brains and our bodies need.
Is that why my Apple Watch tells me to stand so often, because I need to stand so often? We have these stand goals 12 times a day or more if you have a normal goal?
Yeah. Well, we need blood flow to move all the way. And if you’re sitting in one position, it’s just more sedentary, so that you don’t get the hiccup or flow throughout the body.
Well, your heart is a muscle too, so you need to work it.
Right. So we can have the damage of the– in our plaques, again. So when we have continued elevation, high blood pressure, it builds up plaque, and then it can damage the artery walls of our heart, which, if you’re not familiar… I mean, you want flow to be able to go through the entirety of the arteries. You don’t want them to shrink in size, because plaque builds up and obstructs flow.
Right. And you don’t want such high pressure that you burst them, which is a stroke, or something like that. It mainly happens in the brain. The stroke’s in the brain, right?
Otherwise, they’re not strokes, if they’re elsewhere in the body.
Yep. Strokes are brain–
Yep. And then heart attack is [unintelligible 00:34:45.06] related to blood flow. And then we talk about metabolism. So metabolism is our body’s way that it uses and allocates energy. So it’s really involved in terms of–
Yeah, yes. Like our appetite for food, the movement we do, sports, activities, you name it. Also, cognitive activities, too. So inactivity - this is super interesting - inactivity and the lack of energy expenditure create a situation where chronic elevation of these glucocorticoids resulting from poor sleep, ongoing stress or side effects of a rich diet can impede the action of insulin to promote glucose uptake. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s psychological stress or sleep deprivation or your diet that’s increasing those glucocorticoids. The consequences in terms of the allostatic load on our body are identical, which looks like insulin resistance and increased risk for heart disease.
Insulin resistance is diabetes, and cardiovascular disease is– we just talked about it. If your heart doesn’t work, if it can’t pump the blood properly, if you have a dis-ease in your cardiovascular system, then you can’t pump the blood properly. Whether it’s healthy blood or not, it’s just not gonna– your body’s not gonna operate like it is right now if you’re healthy.
Right. So we have to learn how to manage our stress, that at the end of the day. I mean, I don’t need it to get to be prolonged, I just have to be cognizant of “Hey, I’m feeling a little stressed. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Oh, this has been a long run of multiple stressors. What am I doing to barter that or buffer it?” One of the things that stands out, like I mentioned earlier, is social isolation. There is a study done back in 2018, sorry, by Cigna, that indicated that loneliness levels had reached an all-time high. 40% of the survey participants reported that they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated. This is pre-pandemic people. That’s a lot. There was a meta-analysis that was co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who is the Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at BYU, noted that the lack of social connection heightens health risks– Oh, gosh. You ready for this, Adam?
I’m holding on.
–as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or having alcohol use disorder. And that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to our physical and mental health as obesity. This was published back in 2015 in the Perspectives on Psychological Science. Like… Wow. Wow.
So when I first read that, obviously smoking 15 packs of cigarettes or 15 cigarettes–
Not 15 packs. Yeah, 15 cigarettes, individual cigarettes, not packs, a day… Well, that has an impact on my lungs. I took that literally when I first read it, and I scoffed. But then I obviously went a little deeper and thought, “Okay, that’s clearly harmful.” But why would they compare it to cigarettes, do you think? Because it’s just really bad for you, or the way it makes you breathe, or the amount of stress it puts on your body because of the inability to process oxygen well?
Yeah. Well, I think what they’re getting at is just the deleterious effects, like “Hey, this is so significant. We know that smoking isn’t good for us.” It’s not like, “Well, it’s okay. You can just have a few.” No, it’s never really good for our lungs. And so to help people understand - loneliness, and the lack of meaningful relationships also affects our health. I’ve been talking with people a lot about this, especially during the pandemic, and figuring out ways that we can have engagement with other people even if it might not be live, in person. How do I still have my community of people, so to speak?
I know, right?
Yeah. Well, community is really a key thing there, and I think that’s what we try to do with this show, and Changelog at large is foster this network of community, this people group that can be both curious and adventurous in terms of what they pursue in their life with technology. We obviously cover lots of different stuff, but the key component there is community. Gosh, there’s times I’m like– I’m so thankful for the community we have. And if it wasn’t there on the daily, I would feel disconnected. I would feel lonely.
Yeah. So there was another study done that was published in the journal called Heart, back in 2016. The study was done by Newcastle University epidemiologist, Nicole Valtorta, and she linked to loneliness to a 30% increase in risk of stroke or the development of coronary heart disease.
So that’s not an association.
Yeah, it increases your risk.
Well, the prior research was an association, like “It’s like doing this”, whereas this causes.
Yeah. She also goes on to say that a lonely person’s higher risk of ill health is likely from a hybrid of factors including behavior, biology, and their psychological mindset. Generally speaking, that’s most often what’s at play. It’s not one. It’s let’s look at the combination of things that we’re doing that get you to this negative outcome. So social isolation - not so hot; adds to stress. And guess what else does? Uncertainty. I’m sure nobody’s got uncertainty…
Oh my gosh, yeah…
Right?! So the Senior Director of Practice Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association, Lynn Bufka, stated that - and I quote, “Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress.” Part of what we try to do to function or in our society is to have some structure, some predictability. When we have those things, life feels more manageable, because you don’t have to put the energy into figuring those things out.
Yeah. It’s like if every day you start at zero in terms of things figured out. Whereas certainty gives you maybe 10 points on the scale, 20 points on the scale, whereas you’re not starting at zero every single day. There is some knowns that you wake up to, knowing they’re gonna be there. And then the climate like it is in many ways, the entire world seems to be in a state of flux. I think it’s always been there. Maybe this goes back to the hyper-connectedness, where one part of stress too can be the fact that we’re just every day we’re bombarded with bad news. The stream of bad news doesn’t end. And so back to what you’ve said before in terms of advice, it’s the choices you make, how you cope. You can choose to listen to that. That doesn’t mean turn a blind ear and you’re not going to listen to it or be aware that there’s bad news out there. It’s just more like, how much of it are you intaking and allowing to change how you feel and how you cope and how you direct your life? Because some of those things are bad news that apply to you. Some of those things are bad news that don’t apply to you at all, but you let impact you, your mood, your stress, how you even handle relationships that single day.
Yeah. So you’re like, “Great, Mireille. Now that you’ve scared me more and added to my stress, what do I do?” Because we never want to leave you like “And that’s it. Too bad. So sad.”
“These are the truths. Deal with it.” No, that’s not how it works.
No. So - going back to where we started about what is one of the most significant things relative to stress is our perception of what we believe to be threatening. So you’ve gotta start with being aware of what you think. There is a team of researchers that was led by Christopher Massey, a doctor out of the University of Chicago, that noted that interventions that focus more inward and address the negative thoughts underlying loneliness in the first place can help to combat loneliness more than those designed to improve social skills, enhance social support or increase opportunities for social interactions.
So the meta-analysis reviewed 20 randomized trials of interventions to decrease loneliness in kids, adolescents and adults, and that really, what we talk about in my field called cognitive behavioral therapy, which is focused on addressing maladaptive social thoughts, worked best because it helped people realize and navigate their negative thoughts about their self-worth or how others perceive them… And this is at the heart of it, “How do I perceive how I’m doing, what is stressful, and what do I think people are thinking about me that doesn’t actually help me?”
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Because if I think that I’m going to be overwhelmed or I wake up and I’m like, “Man, today is gonna stink. It’s gonna be overwhelming, or so and so is going to be upset with me because I didn’t get this project done, or I dropped this ball, or my goodness, I didn’t sleep and I’m on my fourth cup of coffee”, I want to start to go “What am I thinking about? Where am I spending my time? And what is the environment that my thoughts are providing?” Just like soil. I don’t want to plant things that are in really– I don’t plant things on rocks. Usually, it doesn’t grow very good.
Nah, you need nutritious soil.
Exactly. So our thoughts, ironically, are the soil that we live in. So can you be reflective around the thoughts that you’re thinking and the way in which you talk to yourself? Because it matters; it really matters.
One of the things I’m so thankful for with technology is that there are other resources. I like to think of even our phones like our external brains at times. It’s been super helpful for people with disorders such as ADHD, but also individuals with brain injury, and then just for reminders, or access… Because like we talked about stress affecting our memory and how we process data, if I’ve got it somewhere, I can just reference it. So I was super excited to find that the National Center for PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder actually created an app called the COVID Coach. Woo-hoo!
We all need a coach.
We do, we do. So this is super interesting, because it’s got different aspects relative to managing stress, ways you can learn, can you do a mood check, or finding resources. And so it’ll take you through different steps, but it’s really cool to just have access to something else that helps you do you better, given the context of COVID.
What are some of the things that it asks you?
Well, so if I click on managing stress, and it says, “Coping with stress.” It’ll say, “For this exercise, find a comfortable and quiet place to sit, where you are unlikely to be disturbed. And please note that there will be pauses in the audio so you can practice without distraction.” And it tells you it’s going to last about 16 minutes. And it takes you through a whole body scan of evaluating what’s going on. It also talks about navigating relationships. And it has “Watch funny videos” or “Watch past sports highlights on TV or online.” I love this, “Write a poem or a story. Oprah.com has tips that can get you started”, and it provides you the link. How awesome is that?
I love this. Adam. How did you know we were gonna be doing this today? “Put on your favorite shirt to feel good.”
Oh, yes. I have my Super-dad shirt on, because I am a Super-dad.
Yes. And then it has about sleep struggles. So you’re going to be led through a relaxation exercise focused on visualizing something pleasant, and it tells you it’ll take you four minutes, and walks you through. It also has checks, like do a mood check. Do you want to track well being, track your mood? For learning - how do I stay healthy? Handwash like a pro. Oh, I love this. Do the five - hands, wash them often; elbow, cough into it; face, don’t touch it; space, keep a safe distance; and home, stay if you can.
So there’s a lot of different aspects to it. But I think it’s really helpful for people to have resources. I forget which application, if it’s Headspace or Mindfulness; one of those… I want to say that they’re offering it free. So I’ll double check that and put it in our show notes so that you guys have access. But other resources that help us even with our thinking, and then also link it with behaviors we can do is fantastic.
One thing you mentioned in that list there which I thought was interesting, and something we could probably dive into deeper some other time is laughter; how well we react to good laughter. Not just smiling or laughing a little, but big gut laughing, and what laughter can do for you to change your mood. I don’t know what the stat might be, but I’ve gotta imagine if I don’t have a good laugh a couple of times a week - I can tell, things just stay down. They don’t stay like super-happy. But laughter is interesting to consider for how it impacts your mind.
Yep. So again, like we talked about the uncertainty - the structure. Create your own structure for the day. This is why it’s really important even with kids, and I would say external structure helps support in the lack of internal structure. So feeling more discombobulated or at the mercy of my emotions, that’s where having some consistency or going, “This is what I do. I chunk my days, or I do this at the same time each day”, it helps me manage how I feel more effectively.
Well, especially when you have uncertainty that begins to enable certainty. You control your own level of certainty.
If I can’t control the world, then I can at least control how I move through the world on a day to day basis.
Exactly, yeah. And putting in– I like to think of it like braiding in different strands that help you feel better, that are stress-reducing. I think one of the big things if people can get outside… I see this a lot in the Pacific Northwest, especially during fall and winter, when it’s a little gloomier and rainier, and going – it’s still so important to get outside, because part of the negative mood is you’re just inside, inside. So figuring out ways to do that safely. You do not have to go into a significant public setting in order to do that… But in what way can you connect with nature and just be out of the four walls of your home? And of course, managing screen time. Do the things that actually help you feel better, not the things that hinder you or create more mental flare-ups.
Yeah. I think of it like, what is it that’s stealing my time? What is it that’s stealing my thoughts?” Sort of the anti-distraction. So it’s not so much what’s distracting me, but more like, what is taking, literally stealing, taking my time, taking my attention, taking my thoughts? And it could be screen time, it could be other things we’re talking about too, but in regards to screen time, it happens far more often than we like… And we’re just so used to having this phone in our pocket or this device with us that it’s normal to just use it as a portion of coping.
I don’t want to go to sleep right now, or I’m stressed out so I can’t fall asleep right away. Let me look at Instagram. Let me look at Twitter. Let me look at or listen to my favorite podcast– which hey, if that’s this show, then keep listening. But if it’s other shows, just turn right off. [laughter] Just kidding around… But being mindful of what is it that’s like taking these things from you. Again, back to what you’re optimizing for. If you’re optimizing for “I want to get to sleep at a decent time”, then - well, what’s stealing that opportunity from you?
Yep. So similarly, I think about this like distract and redirect. Engaging in activities that benefit you, bring joy and distract you from existing challenges. So you can do meditation, yoga, journaling, art projects… I mean, any and many things.
One of the things that I have done recently, which is– I read a lot, not surprising, but I tend to read a lot of nonfiction. In fact, yes, that’s what I read. So with everything going on, I’ve actually picked up some fictional books that I don’t read in the same way, but it really just helps disengage my brain and distracts me from all the other things, and lets me– it’s not on a screen, so it has other benefits that bring me back to just another joy, and it’s something I can do in different settings that calm me down.
So the other thing, like I always talk about - move more. Exercise helps with our emotions. And I’ve talked about the way it affects different neurotransmitters. But one of the things that is interesting is that when we’re not moving, you can be more apt to gain a little bit around the middle, and that our immune cells actually tend to hang out more in that excess belly fat, which increases inflammation. And so really, it’s inflammation that’s the primary driver in feeling fatigued. That changes how we think and sleep, and can also contribute to not engaging in other pleasurable activities that could help us in other ways.
Yeah. I would encourage our audience to examine on your own. We may cover it more deeply with an expert at some point, but inflammation is a big thing that happens medically, that is just really, really interesting. So I would encourage you just to find your own resources on it. We may put some of it in the show notes, but inflammation alone is really interesting in terms of how it negatively affects you in many, many ways. So it may seem simple and curable with ibuprofen or something like that, but inflammation is a big deal.
Yep, yep. So get creative in terms of ways that you can stay connected. I know other people who’ve done book clubs, or different workout challenges… The sky’s the limit. Any other ways that facilitate connection, go for it.
I experienced this recently. Me and my buddy recently reconnected to go for a night ride.
Mountain biking… And it’s been so hot here. So I live in Houston; it’s pretty hot here. It’s so hot during the day, you’d have to go at like 6 o’clock in the morning to get a decent ride that was enjoyable, that wasn’t 95+, 93+ degree weather. I love this area, but this time of year, it’s just really hot and humid for two months. So our summer’s really, really hot sometimes. So a night ride was the solution. So we did a night ride, and it was so awesome. We had obviously lights on our helmets and lights on our bikes and stuff like that, so it was great. But it was just as good as riding through the day. And I’m so happy we did that, because– well, now we have an outlet. Even though it’s hot, we can get a ride in, and it’s social, and we have fun doing it. It’s movement. It’s reconnection with friends. I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I did it, and then I reaped the benefits of it. I definitely have a new attitude towards that this week, because I had that moment.
Yeah. And then all of these are more behaviors and whatnot, but we got to go back to the body basics and thinking about what you intake. What are you eating and how are you sleeping? Because those are significant things that regulate your body, and we know this - sleep is really our brain’s opportunity to sort, filter, defrag. I mean, it’s ironically a busy time, but it is so necessary for our body and our brains to be able to heal and get recalibrated.
I don’t know the deeper details of this, but we use a lot of glucose during sleep. That if you have– if you’re glucose deficient or if you have low, you might wake up in the middle of the night and do different stuff. We’ll have to link to some additional stuff, but I did hear that recently, that in the nighttime, with sleep for example – or was that REM sleep, and whatnot? It requires a lot of extra energy, more than you think. That’s why you burn a lot of fat even while you’re sleeping, because it’s so energetic.
Yeah, you’re spot on. There’s been a number of researchers… I want to say Matthew Walker and Michael Bruce are both some leading researchers, clinicians relative to sleep, and how busy our brains and our bodies are during that time. So like many other aspects, no one of the medical field, we haven’t been able to put all of the pieces together yet, but it’s so important for us to be able to regulate our brains, our moods, our bodies with that. So I don’t want to leave people hanging, too… In terms of just other resources, I always think that’s super important, because if you didn’t know that something was there, you don’t have access to utilize it. So bear in mind, there is always the National Alliance on Mental Health called NAMI, there’s SAMSA, which stands for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for resources, especially during this time… And there’s always the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, which are here in the US, so that people can go, “Hey, what’s going on? How am I managing things? What other things are available to me in my community?” Those are great places to start.
So much of what we focus on within this podcast is really being our own scientist. So as we move on from what we hear today, I’d encourage each one of you to look at one area of your life that you find to be stressful, and go “What tips? What things? How do I focus on changing this so that I allow my body to move more, in the sense that I don’t get stuck in the one year of stress and perceiving that there’s always danger lurking behind the corner? Because that is no way to really enjoy my life. It’s definitely not a way that I want to live for a prolonged period of time.” And I’d encourage you to find someone else, because that’s just it - when we learn and grow, we can encourage others to do the same. So reach out and see if someone else wants to join you in challenging yourself to grow and manage your own stress differently.
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚