Stress: Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

Stress: Understanding the Mind-Body Connection

Recently, I received a really interesting question from a participant in my Foundations of Well-being course. This person had heard it said lately that stress itself is normal, and that it is our negative reactions to stress that are what is harmful to us. These ideas have significant implications and I’d like to offer these comments about stress and how people think about it.

1. We need to keep the distinctions clear among three things: challenges (i.e., stressors), mobilization of body and mind to meet challenges, and stress.

Stress is a particular kind of body-mind reaction to challenges that is distinct from normal mobilization. Stress usually involves negative emotions such as frustration, irritation, hurt, anxiety, loneliness, or hopelessness. Over time, stress does tend to wear down body and mind, and create issues in our relationships.

How we approach challenges and how we relate to experiences of mobilization are distinct from how we approach stress itself. This is not a merely semantic issue. If we blur these distinctions, we open a door to obscuring, minimizing, and tolerating the negative effects of stress.

2. A person can face a challenge yet not feel stressed. For example, faced with the prospect of giving a speech, someone could still feel at ease and confident inside. Approaching this challenge, a person could remind herself that she has handled similar challenges in the past, and feel calmer as a result. But to be clear, this is an approach to the challenge, not to stress itself.

In my work on resilience, I focus on building psychological strengths like grit, calm, and self-compassion that help us approach stressors without getting stressed.

3. A healthy mobilization response to challenge is not the same as an unhealthy stressful reaction to challenge.

As the body-mind mobilizes to meet a challenge – perhaps the heart beats faster, the body tenses a bit to prepare for action, thinking speeds up to focus on what to do, mild emotions such as uneasiness or exasperation hover in the edges of awareness, and there is a general sense of growing intensity – this is not itself stress.

It is indeed useful to frame this normal response to challenge as healthy and not a bad thing. Then we don’t add negative reactions to our experience . . . that would make us stressed. But to be clear, this is not changing our approach to stress itself.

It is normal and fine to rev up, be passionate, have a fierce commitment to others, and make strong efforts – typically, with activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – as long as these are accompanied by mainly positive emotions. And there are parallel processes with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS):

  • SNS arousal + negative emotions = stress
  • SNS arousal + positive emotions = enthusiasm
  • PNS arousal + negative emotions = stress (with freezing, dissociating, feeling defeated, helplessness, etc.)
  • PNS arousal + positive emotions = calm, tranquility, peace


Consider Alex Honnold as an example, who recently free soloed El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope. While climbing, he is certainly challenged and mobilized, but as he has said, if he is stressed something has gone terribly wrong.

4. Stress itself is generally bad for the body and mind, especially if it is sustained and/or intense and/or happens when we are young. There is MUCH research on this point.

Appreciating that how we approach challenges can protect us from stress, and appreciating that how we approach normal mobilization responses can protect us from stress . . . should not lead us to minimize or obscure the accumulating negative effects of stress itself. Challenges are good, mobilization is good, but stress is not.

Believing that stress is OK and even positive may inadvertently lead a person to believe that mobilization responses are OK, and therefore lead the person to accept these mobilization responses and not get stressed about them . . . which may have health benefits over the lifespan that can be identified in a study. But such health benefits would be based on a misunderstanding. And this misunderstanding opens a door to downplaying the negative effects of stress itself.

5. Growing from challenges is wonderful. But growing from stress is way overrated. First, most stress is just . . . stress. There is no growth from it. Most pain has no gain. Second, even if we did grow from the stress itself – somehow growing from feeling pressured, tense, upset, driven, contracted, worried, angry, etc. – that growth from stress comes with the costs of stress; any benefits should be netted against the costs. Third, even if stress itself led to some kind of growth, could we have grown in that way without the stress and its costs? For example, could we have developed self-worth without feeling stressful shame as a child?

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the primary way to grow psychological resources – including resilience, happiness, love, and inner peace – is to have experiences of these resources or related factors that are internalized (i.e., turned into lasting changes of neural structure or function). And those experiences are usually enjoyable and not stressful. In other words, the path to growing the good in our minds and relationships and lives is marked mainly by positive emotions. Stress is usually an indicator that you are off the path.

6. Of course, getting stressed about being stressed will just create more stress. Fighting negative emotions just feeds them.

As negative emotions and stress arise in awareness, what’s most effective is to accept them with spacious mindfulness . . . and be curious about their causes . . . . and not feed them . . . and gradually shift attention as it feels authentically possible to what is productive, useful, informative, healing, encouraging, enjoyable, etc. . . . and internalize these positive experiences to grow more strengths inside . . . which will help you be less stressed in the future.

Mindfulness of negative emotions and stress is a well-known and wonderful practice. When we’re rattled, upset, or stressed, this is where we should start. But not where we should stop.

7. Last, as many have pointed out, we should be generally thoughtful about the uses to which ideas are put, even accidentally, and even with the best of intentions.

For example, if people believe that stress itself is OK and even positive, they could become more willing to tolerate higher levels of stress in themselves and others at work. This tolerance could reduce their willingness to push back against stressful environments, expectations, and bosses, and it could increase their willingness to stress the people they work with or the people they supervise. There could also be implications for how they think about children and childrearing.

The embracing of stress in high pressure, high tech settings is not coincidental. It may be great for profit but not for people.

More broadly, an acceptance and even valuing of stress could further fuel an already turbocharged, driven, multitasking, and time-squeezed culture.

8. In sum, challenges are part of life, and we can grow from accepting them and mobilizing to deal with them.

While being mobilized – and perhaps revved up and determined and passionate, while experiencing mainly positive emotions – we can view the body-mind responses to challenge as normal aspects of coping and not be alarmed by them.

And when we are in fact experiencing negative emotions and stress, we can step back from these reactions and be mindful of them and not add fuel to those fires.

Meanwhile, we can recognize the costs of stress itself, and grow inner resources that help us meet challenges without paying the price of stress.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

Get the Just One Thing
Weekly Newsletter

A simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You can unsubscribe at any time and your email address will never be shared.