Tag Archives: Stress

Want less stress? Get excited, join a choir and help others.

7 Apr

We have all felt stressed at some stage in your life, You might even have felt stressed already today. You might feel a little bit of anxiety reading this realising you are meant to be doing something more productive or important. You are alive because of stress, If there was no stress you would be dead.

You might enjoy spending time walking in the park looking at the various animals in nature or feeling relaxed looking into your back garden at some birds that are feeding on breadcrumbs or seeds that you have left out for them.

Watching them sit on the garden fence nervously looking around and waiting for that moment when there seems to be no predators around and then quickly flying to the bread still looking around anxiously and taking quick nips at the bread while still surveying the garden for danger. Eventually flying away in a panic when they hear an unfamiliar noise like a back door slamming.  The bird needs to eat to but it also has a desire to stay alive and it does this by remaining in a heightened state of stress while it tries to eat in a possibly dangerous unfamiliar environment.

No Stress = No Human Race

This is exactly how we have survived as a human race for 10’s of thousands of years. The fight or flight response kept us alive as hunter gatherers thousands of years ago before agriculture when we had to hunt for food in environments where we could also be seen as something elses food. Cortisol, adrenaline, glucose and even oxytocin is secreted into the body to help us defend ourselves in these situations and stay alive or run away and survive. Just like the little bird in your garden. Or the squirrel in the park.

We no longer rely on hunting as a means to stay alive in this modern world. But our bodies are still equipped to experience the same fight or flight response. We might get the same release of stress hormones into our body late at night down a dark alleyway when we feel something is not quite right. These stress hormones help us to fight and defend ourselves and stay alive or depart the situation very quickly and also stay alive. A very similar situation to our hunter gatherer ancestors. But in the safer world that we live in there is less need for this response.

We have a created a number of different activities and situations that cause our bodies to  trigger the fight or flight response now, job interviews, being late for a deadline, road rage,feelings of inadequacy, difficulty paying bills or being overwhelmed at work all can trigger the fight or flight response and stress. The thing is, if the bird in the back garden feeding on the bread, felt that same level of stress all the time it would quite quickly die. Its heart and immune system would eventually break down and life would end. It’s the  exact same for us. Too much stress with out a break kills us.


We are not good at being stressed for long periods of time. Our bodies can’t take it. In today’s world though how do we avoid any stress at all? We could spend our life avoiding the exam, the job interview,the first date the work presentation. But ultimately live a life unfulfilled and without challenge. Feeling anxiety and experiencing feelings of discomfort in unfamiliar situations are behaviours that our brain has not forgotten. It’s a coping mechanism. Is there a way to harness stress to work in our favour and help us?

It seems there is

Anxiety and excitement are very similar states. They are both aroused emotions. In both cortisol(stress hormone) surges the heart beats faster and the body is preparing itself for action. The only difference is that one is a negative emotion and the other is positive. When we are in an anxious state the first piece of advice usually is to calm down and relax. This is almost impossible as the body is surging with cortisol and adrenaline and the heart is beating faster and the blood is being oxygenated. Returning to a zen like state any time soon is unlikely.  How can we use this anxiety filled state to benefit us in this situation?


Well Alison Woods Brooks a professor at Harvard business school found some interesting results through research in 2014.

She conducted three experiments.

  1. The first one involved 113 participants in an activity that would certainly raise the stress levels. Sing a song in front of a group of people. The song she chose was “Don’t stop believin” by Journey due to its familiarity and popularity.  She then split participants into groups.  Each group either focused on feeling anxious, excited, calm, sad or angry. With phrases like “I am anxious” or “I am excited”. Using a video game that scored on pitch and accuracy of singing from participants.

The results were interesting. All those in the anxious group scored a 53% accuracy on the gaming results. Those that had focused on calm, anger or sadness had achieved 69% averages. But this that had focused on “I am excited” had seen a score of 80% average and reported a greater feeling of enjoyment while performing. It takes less of a move to change anxiety to excitement( arousal congruence) than to switch it to calmness.

2. Public speaking is a frightening prospect for many people but we all have to deal with it at some stage. 140 participants were asked to talk to a team of  judges on “Why they should be considered good working partners” The judges were to ask tough questions and the participants were to be filmed. Participants were asked to repeat beforehand that “I am calm” or ” I am excited”. Independent evaluators judged those in the excited group had more persuasive, competent and relaxed presentations.

3. The third experiment involved a series of mathematical tests. Beforehand 188 participants either focused on “Trying to get excited” “Trying to keep calm” or did nothing at all. All those in the excited group performed 8% on average higher in the test than the calm and control group and reported feeling more relaxed about their capabilities.

The way it works is that it puts people into an opportunity mindset with a focus on the positives that can happen rather than dwelling on a threat mindset where anxiety lies.


Kelly McGonigal who spoke on the TED stage back in 2013 spoke about the importance of using stress to your advantage. If we think differently about stress we can see remarkable results. The heart beating faster is helping you, you get blood flowing to the brain and greater oxygenation of the blood vessels.

Kelly says that when you believe that while you are stressed the body is helping you with your current situation your body believes it too and responds accordingly.

She argues that stress makes us social. The body produces oxytocin when we are stressed its also produced when we make love or are hugged by someone. It’s seen as a trust hormone. It’s a neurohormone. When we are stressed and we seek supports and make social contacts with others we produce oxytocin. The more oxytocin we produce the faster you recover from stressful situations. This might account for the high levels of life expectancy within countries that score high for strong social support on the World happiness report. Countries Like Norway, Denmark, Iceland and other Nordic countries score high on trust and social supports. Icelandic citizens in particular with a life expectancy of 83 rely on strong social supports and connections.


 Sing like your winning

Iceland has over 300 choirs with more than 9,000 members in a population of 325,000 people, that is very impressive.Choirs are a great way to feel less stressed and connected as explained here  by Oliver Burkeman and experience something greater than you alone.

It’s what we do when we are in a stressful situation that matters. A 5 year study by Michael Poulin released in 2013 at the University of Buffalo in New york involved almost 900 people in the Detroit Michigan area.  The participants all aged between 34-93 were asked two questions

  1. How much stress have you experienced in the past year?
  2. How much time have you spent helping to friends, neighbours and relatives?

Specifically, over the five years of the study, we found that when dealing with stressful situations, those who had helped others during the previous year were less likely to die than those who had not helped others,” he says.

Self-reported stressful experiences included such things as serious, non-life-threatening illness, burglary, job loss, financial difficulties or death of a family member.

Respondents also reported the total amount of time in the past 12 months they had spent helping friends, neighbours or relatives who did not live with them by providing transportation, doing errands and shopping, performing housework, providing child care and other tasks.

“When we adjusted for age, baseline health and functioning and key psychosocial variables,” Poulin says, “the Cox proportional hazard models (the most widely used method of survival analysis) for mortality revealed a significant interaction between helping behavior, stressful events, morbidity and mortality.

“Our conclusion,” he says, “is that helping others reduced mortality specifically by buffering the association between stress and mortality.

It’s not that we experience stress that is affecting us it’s what we do with the stress that matters. Stress is inevitable we can’t escape it will always be a part of our lives.

If you are feeling anxious before a test, a first date, job interview or work presentation understand that what is going on in your body is trying to help you. So

What works?

  • Reframe your situation: Use that energy to help you “feel excited” will always give you greater advantage, It’s called arousal congruence.
  • When you are stressed use the supports around you to help you release oxytocin. Get hugs, have sex or simply connect on a deeper level with those around you. The oxytocin will help the heart regenerate from stress related damage. The more oxytocin you produce the faster you recover from stress.
  • Join a choir. The sense of belonging and connection to something bigger has a great impact on our stress,social connections and pain threshold. Research from Goldsmiths college in London explains this
  • Do good for others. Caring for other people lowers levels of stress considerably and creates resilience.


Maybe its time to take control of your stress.



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