3 Ways Stress is Actually Good for You

I’ve often written about stress, here, here, and here. Most of my writing about it has focused on the detrimental effects upon our body, leadership, and brain. However, I’m now reading an eye opening book by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonical, The Upside of Stress, Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. I highly recommend it. She also presented a TED talk on the subject that millions have watched. You can watch it here. In this post I summarize three ways stress is actually good for you.

pastors under stress

First, a caveat. Prolonged stress is NOT good for us. When our body remains on high alert for long periods of time research has discovered many bad effects result including dampened immunity, digestive problems, heart disease, anxiety, weight gain, impaired brain functioning (especially memory), and sleep impairment.

On the other hand, God wired our bodies to produce a stress response to keep us from being eaten by wild tigers in the Serengeti. Fortunately, he also gave us brains so that we could grow and make our lives safer and more comfortable. So, such a response that He created in us to keep us safe isn’t needed in that same way today, at least for most of us in the west.

At the core of rethinking stress lies a concept McGonical calls mindsets. The term is self explanatory. It simply means the beliefs that shape how we view things. The key to making stress work on our behalf lies in changing our mindsets. If we view periodic stress as beneficial, it actually transforms how the body responds to it. She gives several interesting studies that show how changing our mindsets toward it benefits us. Changing this mindset increases the production of a neurotransmitter called DHEA which helps mitigate the negative effects of the stress hormone, cortisol (among other positive benefits). In fact, studies show that having a positive mindset on aging can add an average of nearly eight years to your life.

Here are the three benefits.

  1. It gives us more energy to rise to the challenges we face in life. As a pastor I speak every Sunday when I give a 30-40  minute sermon. My stress response system revs up right before I speak. This process actually dumps fat and sugar in to my bloodstream that gives me fuel. The processes in my brain speed up resulting in better focus and concentration. My motivation increases as chemicals get released in my brain and bloodstream. My body uses energy more efficiently. I’m more prepared for the challenge at hand, to bring what I hope is a God inspired talk to encourage others in their relationship with Christ. McGonical calls this the ‘excite and delight’ side of stress.
  2. It motivates us toward greater social connection. When I read about this benefit, my first thought was, “When we get stressed we tend to pull back to protect ourselves.” That is the case for some. But again, changing our mindset is key. When the stress response activates, it actually releases oxytocin, also called the trust hormone. Oxytocin helps us build bonds with others. A hug can release it. A mom breastfeeding her baby causes the baby’s brain to release it. Oxytocin gives us a greater sense of empathy toward others. This part of the stress response is called the ‘tend and befriend’ response. We might even call this what Scripture describes as community. We need each other, especially in times of difficulty.
  3. It can actually help us grow and learn. McGonical writes that this benefit occurs when we are in the recovery phase, when we return to a non-stress baseline. The various stress hormones and neurotransmitters actually help us recover from it as much as they help us rise to challenges. For several hours after a stress induced experience our body slowly returns to what is called homeostasis, when our body’s chemicals come back into normal balance. In doing do, the brain learns from the experience. After such an experience we often replay it in our minds or even talk to a friend about it. That process helps cement learnings in our minds so that we know how to better handle similar stressful experiences in the future.

So, stress definitely carries an upside, but the key is mindset. I believe Paul had mindset in mind when he wrote these words.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Phil 4.8)

What are your initial thoughts about the benefits of stress?

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5 Scientifically Proven Mindfulness Skills that WILL Make you a Better Leader (and a better person)

As a pastor, I’m always looking for ways to enhance my leadership. I believe good leaders should never stop learning. In the past few years as we’ve learned more about the human mind and brain, science is affirming an ancient contemplative practice rooted in church history and scripture, mindfulness. It’s helped me so much that I’m currently writing a book on Christian mindfulness. Five basic skills comprise the essence of this practice. In this post I explain those skills that will benefit any leader.

First, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation. It’s setting aside daily time to be still before God, to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our minds, but filling our minds with thoughts of Him and His Word. And it’s not some weird new age practice. It’s a science based practice that helps us disengage from automatic and unhealthy thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions to simply be in God’s presence. It’s both a devotional practice and a way to live each moment.

Last year hundreds of studies were published that showed the benefits of mindfulness. Here are a few of them.

  • improved memory
  • less anxiety and depression
  • a healthier heart
  • better ability to cope with stress
  • enhanced relationships
  • less reactivity
  • overall improved well-being

One scientifically proven tool is called the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire based on the five skills I’ve described below. You can take this inventory here to evaluate how well you practice these skills. If you want to read more about how to develop them, I recommend the book, In this Moment: Five Steps to Transcending Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroscience. The authors explain the skills in depth.

Skill 1: Observing. In this skill you learn to notice what’s happening inside you and in your immediate surroundings, like zooming in with a camera lens.

Skill 2: Describing. In this skill you use your words to convey what you’re observing. This involves learning to label your emotions and describe bodily sensations.

Skill 3: Detaching. In this skill, you learn to keep your unhealthy comparisons, predictions, and evaluations about your life from sticking to your soul, akin to how  food slides off a Teflon coated frying pan.

Skill 4: Loving yourself. Loving yourself does not mean we become self-centered. Rather, we practice what Jesus told us to do when he said we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. It means that we learn to love ourselves as we are, rather than basing our view of ourselves on other people’s approval or on our own performance.

Skill 5: Acting mindfully. This skill means that we learn to become more aware of what we are doing as we are doing it. We learn to be in the moment rather than being on autopilot or trying to get to a ‘better’ moment.

Developing these skills helps leaders be fully present for those they lead and care about.

The more present you are as a leader, the more effective your leadership.

What benefits have you read about or learned that mindfulness brings?

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How to Pull out of a Leadership Lull

Every leader at some time in his or her leadership will face multiple leadership lulls. We have a down Sunday. A new ministry doesn’t take off. Someone expresses disappointment in us or criticizes us. A seasonal program doesn’t bring as many new people as we expected. Sometimes those lulls can push us into a downward spiral from which it becomes difficult to pull out. Understanding what goes on in our brains offers insight on how to pull out of a leadership lull.

Our brains actually contribute to downward cycles. When we feel disappointed, a brain chemical that helps us feel positive, dopamine, drops which causes us to operate more from an emotional mode rather than from a thoughtful mode driven by the thinking part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex). This decreases our performance because we enjoy our ministry less which in turn leads to decreased confidence. The spiral continues downward as our decreased confidence dampens our mood which further drops dopamine.

When we face such scenarios, five simple steps can help us move from a downward spiral to an upward spiral. God created our brains to provide doses of dopamine which makes for greater well being in our leadership and in our lives. This in turn can improve our performance which in turn opens us to fresh spiritual and leadership insight. As a result we receive a confidence boost about the future. Thus, we move from a downward spiral into an upward one.

Consider these five ideas to try the next time you face a leadership lull.

  1. Take some time to read a few uplifting portions of Scripture about hope, God’s grace, and joy.
  2. Write down the expectation that was unmet. Was it unrealistic given the current circumstances? Can you adjust the expectation downward to bring it more in line with current circumstances or with what God is telling you?
  3. Think of something unusual or outside-the box that could apply to this situation. Is there a unique or novel way to frame or modify your expectation? Novelty helps boost brain chemicals that help us gain perspective and think more clearly.
  4. Take a small step to accomplish something related to this goal or focus on another goal. Make the goal one that you can accomplish rather easily and quickly. After you do, take another small step. Each successive accomplishment will boost your confidence as it boosts dopamine. Accomplishing even small tasks from our daily to-do list has been proven to boost dopamine.
  5. Call a friend you trust who can help you think through the situation. Often we simply need fresh perspective from an objective friend.

The next time you face a leadership lull, try one or two of these simple steps and see what happens.

What have you found that helps pull you out of a leadership lull?

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3 Morning Habits Guaranteed to Boost Brain Power

I have a passion for the brain and how applying newly discovered brain science can impact leadership and spiritual growth. I even wrote a book about it. Now into my sixth decade of life, I want to maximize my brain power as I (and everybody else) faces inevitable cognitive decline. In this post I share the bad news about what aging does to our brain (starting in the 20’s) and then share 3 morning habits you can build into your routine to boost your brain power and stay mentally sharp.

The bad news about aging and the brain

Unfortunately, just as we can’t avoid death and taxes, we can’t avoid how aging affects our brains. Here’s what happens to our brains as we grow older.

  • Our brains literally shrink. We lose about 5% of our brain matter per decade beginning in our 40’s. In fact, our frontal lobes, where executive functions like short-term memory, abstract thinking, and emotional control lie, reach their peak in our early 20’s.
  • Our brains slow down. Brain cells (neurons) work primarily through a chemical-to-electrical process. When the neuron ‘fires’ it sends an electrical impulse down a fiber called an axon. Like a wire with insulation, material called myelin also wraps around an axon providing insulation. As we age myelin thins which slows firing which in turn slows mental speed.
  • Our brains don’t remember as well. Over time memory fades due to loss of neurons, especially in the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory. And our ability to temporarily hold information in our minds, called working memory, degrades as well.
  • Command of our vocabulary shrinks. A typical 30-year-old has command of an average of 30,000 words whereas an 80-year-old has command of only about 10,000.
  • Peripheral vision diminishes, hearing degrades, yada, yada. Enough of the bad news.

Even with this bad news, science is now showing us ways that we can slow cognitive decline well into our later years. Everybody is not doomed to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

3 Morning Habits that can Boost your Brain Power

  1. Brain training
    • I just added this to my morning routine. Several companies provide software for your smart phone or computer to help train your brain. Several peer-reviewed studies now show that these brain games don’t simply help you get better at playing the games. Rather, scientists are discovering a clear crossover effect beneficial to cognitive health. I use brainHQ from Posit Science. I’m now doing about 20 minutes of brain training 5-6 days a week. For brain training to work, it must tax your brain and you must keep doing it. Doing a game here and there probably won’t make much difference.
  2. Exercise
    • For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  3. Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation that I practice as part of my daily devotional time. It’s setting aside a time to be still before God to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our mind, but filling our mind with thoughts of Him and His Word. It helps us disengage from automatic thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions and simply be in God’s presence. Last year over 400 studies were published that showed multiple body and brain benefits to mindfulness including increased brain volume in the memory and in the self regulatory areas and decreased volume in the brain’s fight and flight centers. I also use an app that reminds me to take short one minute mindfulness breaks throughout the day.

So, even though aging naturally diminishes brain function, a disciplined approach to brain healthy habits can keep your brain sharp for God, for others, and for you.

How do you keep your brain in shape?

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The iPhone App that Improved my Ability to Concentrate

One of the most precious commodities a pastor has is time. Ministry always beckons us to do more than time permits. I once heard a researcher state that most people have 35 hours of unfinished work ahead of them. However, if we use the time we have most effectively, we’ll become more fruitful for the Kingdom. This app has helps me concentrate better which has improved my time management.

Preparing sermons, at least for senior pastors, is one of the most time consuming Kingdom commitments. Although I don’t preach every week, I still must prepare over 40 original messages each year. Each week I study 15-20 hours to prepare one sermon. That’s a good chunk of my week which requires concentration.

Some time back I purchased a $2.99 iPhone app that has proved invaluable to help me concentrate when I study. When I fully concentrate, I make much more progress than when my mind gets distracted.

That app, Ambiance, is a simple collection of natural (and man-made) sounds that I play on my iPhone through my headphones. They call it an “environment enhancer.” In case you are wondering, I don’t make money on the sale of this app and I’m not connected in any way to the company.

The standard iPhone earbuds work ok, but I purchased a pair of noise canceling headphones (Audio Technica) that block out most ambient noise. You can purchase more expensive ones, but this set works great for me. This would make a great Christmas present. They’re not Bose, but a third the price.

So when I study, I plug in, play a repetitive waterfall or beach sound, and become totally oblivious to the people and sounds around me. My ability to concentrate skyrockets. Science confirms that white noise helps us concentrate.

As Paul the Apostle wrote in Ephesians 5.16, … make every minute count. (CEV)

This simple $2.99 purchase has helped me put that command into practice.

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