The Science of Stress

Stress is part of evolution’s brilliance. It motivated us to run away from lions in the jungle. It’s your body’s way of trying to keep you safe.

The problem is, in today’s concrete jungle, we’re stressed out not by lions but by traffic jams, overflowing inboxes, and an insufficient number of Instagram likes. All of which our bodies treat as emergencies.

What can we do about that? As part of the new Ten Percent Happier seven-day stress reduction course, which launches on the app this week, I spoke with Professor Modupe Akinola, a stress researcher at Columbia University, and Sebene Selassie, one of Ten Percent’s star meditation teachers. Here are two excerpts from those conversations.

Modupe Akinola, Stress Researcher and Professor at Columbia Business School

Modupe Akinola, Stress Researcher and Professor at Columbia Business School

Dan: Let’s start at the beginning. What is stress?

Modupe: My favorite definition of stress comes from two researchers, psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman. They think about stress as a situation where the demands of the situation exceed your resources to cope.

Dan: That is why you literally hear people say, “I can't handle this.”

Modupe: Right. “I do not have the resources to cope with this situation.”

Dan: Okay, so what can we do about it?

Modupe: One of the things I do in my research is look at changing people's mindsets about stress. By that I mean simply telling them that not all stress is debilitating. If you just tell somebody, “you're about to take a test, but don’t worry, a little bit of anxiety is actually helpful,” they still experience the physiological stress response like a cortisol increase, but they actually do better on the test.

Dan: So this is like co-opting the stress response to our benefit.

Modupe: Yes. It can actually be beneficial. There are times where the stress response gives you the energy you need. It actually can help you mentally focus a little bit more. I like to say: Stay in the tension.

Dan: That doesn’t sound pleasant.

Modupe: But stress can be enhancing. Try this: think about a time where you were stressed and you rose to the occasion. Just remembering that in a stressful moment can change how you physiologically respond. If you're in a more debilitating stress response, the walls of your blood vessels are constricting. But in an adaptive stress, your heart is pumping hard, but the walls of your blood vessels are dilating. There's more room for the blood to flow efficiently through your system.

Sebene Selassie, Meditation Teacher & Writer

Sebene Selassie, Meditation Teacher & Writer

Dan: How can meditation help with stress?

Sebene: We can’t change the fact that there are stressors in the world and that there are things that are going to make us upset. We're going to have illness, we're going to have difficult periods in our lives, but meditation can help change our response.

Dan: As a three-time breast cancer survivor, you’ve had some personal experience with that.

Sebene: Yes. We suffer because we think that something is a mistake that something has gone wrong. One of the questions I used to ask myself when I had cancer is Why me? Which I think is a question a lot of us ask when something goes wrong. Well, I flipped that and started asking why not me?

Dan: You’ve said you also saw this while working at a refugee camp in Guinea.

Sebene: It was amazing to witness how resilient people could be. And it didn't correlate to what they went through. Some people who went through some of the most horrific things that we could ever imagine were incredibly resilient, and much more so than some of their friends around them who didn't lose as much. So it's always stuck with me.

Dan: You’ve told me that you used to be really bad at meditation, but that you got serious after your first cancer diagnosis. Tell me about that.

Sebene: After I left the refugee camps, I split up from my partner and pretty quickly after that was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage three breast cancer at the age of 34. That was very, very stressful. And at the same time, I was still mourning the end of my relationship. I used to say, even though we weren't married, that divorce was worse than cancer, and I was kind of grappling with both at the same time.

Dan: I'm just wondering, as a meditator, did that help you cope?

Sebene: Definitely. I think a lot of times, people don't know what to do with the emotional stress of a life-threatening illness or with any other major challenge, and they can just get lost in the despair. My practice and training and meditation had taught me how to actually feel the emotions that I was feeling, and not get overwhelmed by them

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Want to learn more? In Ten Percent Happier’s brand-new, seven-session course, we’ve brought together some of the world’s top stress-reduction experts to offer you practical tools to bounce back from stress with more clarity, perspective, and energy. Try it in the app now!

Dan Harris