How recovering from stress spurs learning and growth 

1: Many of us view our sweaty palms, our need for moral support, or our rumination after a stressful experience as excessive “stress symptoms.”  Perhaps we see these signs and believe we aren’t handling stress well.   And, we think stress is something we need to recover from. 

As with so many aspects of stress, we are wrong, Kelly McGonigal writes in her powerful book The Upside of Stress.

“The last stage of any stress response is recovery, when [our] body and brain return to a non-stressed state,” Kelly writes.  Hormones are built into the stress response to help us recover physically and mentally.  “The body relies on a pharmacy of stress hormones to help [us] recover.  For example, cortisol and oxytocin reduce inflammation and restore balance to the autonomic nervous system.  DHEA and nerve growth factor increase neuroplasticity so that [our] brain can learn from stressful experiences.”

2: The stress recovery process takes time, Kelly notes.  “For several hours after [we] have a strong stress response, the brain is rewiring itself to remember and learn from the experience.  During this time, stress hormones increase activity in brain regions that support learning and memory.”

Even though our body is calming down, we still feel mentally charged.  As our brain processes the stressful experience, we often are unable to stop thinking about what happened.  We might feel an impulse to talk with someone about it, or to pray about it.  

If things went well, we “might replay the experience in our mind, remembering everything [we] did and how it worked out.  If things went poorly, [we] might try to understand what happened, imagine what [we] could have done differently, and play out other possible outcomes,” Kelly observes.

3: Emotions often run high during the recovery process.  We may find ourselves too energized or agitated to calm down.  As we recover from a stressful experience, it’s typical to feel fear, shock, anger, guilt, or sadness.  

We may also feel relief, joy, or gratitude.  

“These emotions often coexist during the recovery period and are part of how the brain makes sense of the experience.  They encourage [us] to reflect on what happened and to extract lessons to help us deal with future stress,” writes Kelly.  “They also make the experience more memorable.  The neurochemistry of these emotions render the brain more plastic – a term used to describe how capable the brain is of remodeling itself based on experience.  In this way, emotions that follow stress help [us] learn from experience and create meaning.”

Our brain is processing and integrating the experience.  The process helps our brain to learn and grow.  This is how we learn from stressful experiences.  Our stress response teaches our brain and body how to handle future stress.

“Stress leaves an imprint on [our] brain that prepares [us] to deal with similar stress the next time [we] encounter it.  Not every minor irritation will trigger this process, but when [we] go through a seriously challenging experience, [our] body and brain learn from it.  

“Psychologists call this stress inoculation.  It’s like a stress vaccine for your brain.”  

This is why putting people through “practice stress” is a key aspect of training for NASA astronauts, emergency responders, elite athletes, and others who have to thrive in highly stressful environments.”  [Note: It can also explain the findings of scientists like Stanford’s Karen Parker.

The research shows when we view a stressful situation as an opportunity to learn and improve our skills, knowledge, or strengths, it makes it more likely we will learn from the experience.

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  Think back on a recent stressful experience.  Identify the process you went through afterward.  How does your experience fit into Kelly’s process described above?

Action: Take a few more moments to journal about it.

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