Stress has a rotten reputation—but not all of it is bad. The "good" kind gets you across the street quickly when you see an oncoming vehicle, or it motivates you to work towards a deadline. Your body enters self-protection mode and puts you in tip-top shape: your immune system, heart rate, attention and memory all gear up for survival.
However, when stress is chronic (think of pulling all-nighters and waiting until the last minute to get things done), it turns into bad stress—also known as distress. It can impact your health; you literally feel under attack. It’s not just a feeling, either. Your body physically and automatically reacts as if it is under threat of siege.
When your body is constantly (rather than just momentarily) geared up for self-protection, your systems fatigue and start to decline. Immunity drops, inflammation creeps in, attention and memory start to fail and sleeping problems arise. Other physical changes can also occur, like shallow breathing, tense muscles, anxiety and the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Unless you live in a war zone, that threat usually comes from within in the form of pain and anxiety, so protective reactions fall short. The body unwittingly attacks itself with reactions that serve to worsen the problems of distress.
It's easy to feel powerless against this type of stress, but research has shown there's a lot you can do. The solution, it turns out, is not to escape the pain or negative emotions. Rather, it is to change the way the mind and the body react to them. Science suggests that these skills literally train the brain away from both physical and emotional pain.
Here's how to do it.
Calm your nervous system with the relaxation response
The relaxation response directly counteracts reactions that increase distress, tension and pain. To get there, try diaphragmatic breathing or other yoga-based breathing exercises, like this one. Guided relaxation helps to deeply calm the mind and body. Doing it is simpler than you think: you can download an audiofile onto your smartphone, put in your headphones, close your eyes and follow along on a journey to a peaceful state.
Guided relaxations calm the nervous system by decreasing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension while increasing blood flow. When your mind is in a state of stress from pain or anxiety, your breathing becomes tense and shallow. But research shows that when you consciously change your breathing, you can quickly change how you feel as well. In doing so, the mind is lulled into a state of peaceful relaxation. When the physiological “attack" signals are silenced, mind and body enter a state that signals "trust and safety," which promotes physical and mental wellbeing.
In our research with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with trauma, we found that one week of intensive breathing practices (called sudarshan kriya yoga) normalized anxiety—and the results were maintained one month and one year later. There's more to the expression "take a deep breath" than we think.
Meditation is another technique that cultivates the healing relaxation response. Brain scans of regular meditators show reduced activity in the regions of the brain associated with pain and increased activity in regions associated with emotion regulation, along with many other benefits. People with chronic pain or anxiety who learn to meditate report that their pain or trauma has less of an impact on them; it may still be there, but it matters less and therefore is less distressing. Research we conducted at Stanford University on compassion meditation showed that it significantly reduced chronic pain. (Try a loving-kindness meditation here.)
When diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation or meditation are used regularly, your mind and body are retrained to be less reactive to pain and other stressors—and your nervous system is calmed.
Banish thoughts that stoke pain and distress
Patterns of negative thoughts can increase pain and suffering, so it's important to learn how to stop obsessing and catastrophizing.
One way to do this is through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people identify and change unhelpful beliefs and thoughts that make physical or emotional pain worse. Scripts like “there is nothing I can do to reduce my negative feelings” and “I can’t do any of things I love because of my pain" can be reframed and replaced.
People in CBT acknowledge their challenges and establish patterns of thinking that support better mood, positive actions and reduced suffering, using thoughts like, “there are many things I can do today despite my pain” and “even though I feel challenged right now, I can use several strategies to help calm and soothe myself.”
CBT has a preventive role too: research shows that training the brain away from stress and pain leaves you less likely to experience future pain. Simple exercises that help you focus on the positive—starting a gratitude journal, for example—can help reduce negative feelings. These techniques are evidenced-based treatments for pain.
The data is clear: these simple practical skills can be applied to harness the body’s potential to heal itself. The trick is to use them regularly. In doing so, hardwired “pain reactions” or “stress reactions” can be reprogrammed to support better health and wellbeing.
Beth Darnall, PhD, is a clinical associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of The Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit.
Emma Seppälä, PhD, is science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, co-director of the Yale College Wellness Project and author of The Happiness Track.