How to Make Stress Work for You: The Torch Podcast

An interview with Professor Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, Ph.D.

On this Episode of The Torch, host Ed Leon and  professor Kimberlee Bethany Bonura examine the why, what, and how of stress management. Listen in, and learn how to overcome the negative impacts of stress in many positive ways.

The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

Ed Leon: All right, you’re working on a new course and it’s called “How to Make Stress Work for You.” That title, it sounds counter-intuitive , right? “How to Make Stress Work for You?” Is that like how to make high blood pressure work for you? Is that even possible.

Image of Blood Presssure MonitorKimberlee Bonura: Well, that mind set is part of what’s bad. Consider blood pressure, you brought that up. High blood pressure is bad for you, but so is low blood pressure and the only time that you have no blood pressure is when you’re dead! High stress, sure that’s bad for you, but no stress is not possible.

Ed Leon: That’s bad too.

Kimberlee Bonura: It’s actually bad. There’s been some research that people who have more stressful lives actually report having higher levels of meaning in their lives. Higher levels of life satisfaction. What we’re talking about in the course is how do you have stress that you have meaning, that you have things that you care about, but in a way that promotes health, wellness, satisfaction? How do you have it in a way you can manage it and channel it towards a good life?

People who have more stressful lives actually report having higher levels of meaning in their lives

Ed Leon: Sure. Is that a new definition. Is that a new mindset about stress or? How are you defining it here?

Kimberlee Bonura: It’s been evolving in the scientific literature. There’s been research over the last … Actually some of the Scandinavian research since the ’70s have found that high stress levels in certain contexts of performance can be good. The broad consensus of research has been shifting to understand that stress is nuanced. That there are situations where too much stress is bad for our health, but there are other situations where we can look at stress and say, “I’m excited. This is a good opportunity.”

Ed Leon: Is it situational or is it a threshold like any stress, once it goes beyond a certain level is bad? Or do we know?

Kimberlee Bonura: I think the big thing is it’s the mind set. Doctor Kelly McGonigal from Stanford University is a health psychologist and some of her research that she’s reported on looks at when you have the belief that stress is bad for you, having higher levels of stress is predictive of poor health outcomes. When people believe that stress is something that they can handle, that the stress in their life reflects value, then high stress in their life is reported to that meaning and that sense of life satisfaction. A lot of how stress impacts you, depends on what’s going in your head about stress.

Image of stressed out woman
…when you have the belief that stress is bad for you, having higher levels of stress is predictive of poor health outcomes.

Ed Leon: Very interesting. All right, we’re talking with Kimberlee Bonura,  and we’re talking about stress. You’ve talked to us about stress management before in your other courses. How to Boost Your Physical and Mental Energy, How to Stay Fit as You Age. Stress management worked as a component of all of those. What are the techniques in this new course that you’re building? What are some of the techniques that we can look forward to?

Kimberlee Bonura: Stress obviously does relate to your energy and your fitness, but it’s also such a deep, broad, complex subject that it was great to have a full course, 18 lectures to really get to dig in to look at our emotions to look at how happiness and stress are related. How anger can create stress. How do we handle stress when we’re in true trauma, grief, loss, sorrow, death. These are complex issues where stress is very nuanced and we also spent a lot of time looking at strategies. Exercise, of course, most people know. Exercise helps and we look at the way that exercise works perventatively. How it can work in the moment. We spent some time talking about bio-feedback, which is a technology that’s been around for a long time and has some proven medical benefits.

Ed Leon: Is that considered still a conventional…

Kimberlee Bonura: I think so.

Ed Leon: Okay. Explain, because that’s a term that’s tossed around, but I don’t know if we all know exactly what it means. What is bio feedback exactly?

Kimberlee Bonura: Bio-feedback is a device that lets you get feedback about your biological functioning. It can be as simple as if you wear an activity monitor or have a heart rate tracker on your cellphone, you’re doing bio-feedback. Tracking your heart rate. You can use that. If you’re stressed, if you’re learning how to do a breathing strategy and you can’t tell if you’re calming down or now, track your heart rate. Watch it slow down. The reason it’s powerful is it helps you learn that you have control over those physiological practices.

Ed Leon: Right. Now, everyone is doing bio-feedback then. Everybody is wearing those fitness trackers. In the past, how did we have to do it? Didn’t we use to sit people down in front of a monitor.

Image of Biofeedback device

Kimberlee Bonura: They can and that’s certainly one kind. Physical therapist will often use it if you’ve had muscle that you’ve lost some functioning and you can’t even tell when you’re contracting it, a physical therapist might use a bio-feedback device to help you see when you’re contracting the muscle. In a medical setting it can be much more complex.

Ed Leon: All right. What are some of the other techniques we may not be so familiar with that you’re espousing in this course?

Kimberlee Bonura: We have one lecture that’s actually on emerging strategies. Things that either have been around, but maybe the research is still building. Things that are newer and more “ify” on what the research is, but that maybe people use for stress. We talk some about eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing.

Ed Leon: Sounds complicated.

Kimberlee Bonura: It sounds complicated, it has to do with that you’re literally moving your eyes while you’re working through a trauma. The research for that on PTSD, the Veterans Administration uses it, has it as a strongly recommended practice for PTSD because it’s effective.

Ed Leon: Really? All right, is it something that we can do right now?

Kimberlee Bonura: We’re going to do a quick thing. I’d love to try with you called emotional freedom tapping, which is based on the EMD process.

Ed Leon: Okay. What is that? Emotional-

Kimberlee Bonura: Emotional Freedom Tapping. This is another one where some people say it doesn’t work, it’s just a placebo. Other people say it does work, it helps people and the reason it helps is because it’s something you do on yourself. I’m not going to tap on you, I’m going to show you what to do yourself, which means it’s a strategy that’s in your own control. Self control is a big part of stress management.

Ed Leon: Sure. All right.  Are we about to do this?

Kimberlee Bonura: Okay.  We’re talking about stress today, so when you do emotional freedom tapping, you identify an issue that you’re having. Our issue is, I’m stressed, right? Even though I have this stress, even though I have this issue, I deeply and completely accept myself, all right? That’s what we’re going to say while we tap on our body at certain parts. We’re going to start at the top of our heads. You follow along, do it with me.

Ed Leon: All right.

Kimberlee Bonura: Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself and I hope you guys online try this with us, all right? Now, we’re going to move to our foreheads. You have to say it too.

Ed Leon: Oh, I have to say it?

Kimberlee Bonura & Ed Leon: Even thought I have this stress. I deeply and completely accept myself. All right, now, right below your eye.  Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself.

Now, I want you to come under the eye. Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself. Now, under your nose, one hand.

Image of Plumeria flower and stones for spa background
When was the last time you said to your self, “I deeply and completely accept myself?” What a powerful statement.

Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself. Now, under your chin. Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself.Now, we’re going to go right at the collar bone, right here. Just gently, Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself. Now, right under your arm, sort of at the chest line. Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself.

Ed Leon: Even though I have this stress. I deeply and completely feel a little bit silly.

Kimberlee Bonura: I know, then the last one is the wrists.

Kimberly & Ed: Even though I have this stress, I deeply and completely accept myself.

That’s all there is to it. One minute, quickly do that. Whatever you’re issue stress frustration is.

Ed Leon: What the importance of the individual touch points?

Kimberlee Bonura: The individual touch points are based on acupressure and they’re supposed to tapping at specific meridian points to activate healing and recovery in the body. The critics say, “you’re just tapping and saying stuff. It’s probably placebo.” Who knows. The psychologists and mental health practitioners who use it in their therapy say, “I don’t really care if it’s a placebo.” For some reason, when people come in with trauma and they do this. They seem to feel better.

Ed Leon: Right.

Kimberlee Bonura: My take is that … Think about how often we judge ourselves all day long. When was the last time you said to your self, “I deeply and completely accept myself?” What a powerful statement.

Ed Leon: It would probably have been more powerful if I wasn’t in front of the cameras. Right?

Kimberlee Bonura: Right, exactly. You try it later.  Take a moment and really reflect and think about that and when you’re at home, when you’re stressed, just try saying that to yourself. I deeply and completely accept myself and think about how that kind of self acceptance-

Ed Leon: Right, but we’ve come to goof on self-affirmation a little bit, right.  Because of the comedians and remember that old Saturday Night Live stuff with Al Franken was looking in the mirror, right, that bit. Self-affirmation, it’s positive, it’s self-affirming, it’s taking … It’s sort of mindfulness in a way, right?

Kimberlee Bonura: It is and I think one of the things, it’s certainly a mind set shift and you look at the research on optimism and gratitude and again, people get into the positive psychology and the self help and they say, “oh that’s all just sill whatever,” but the reality is, our brains have neuro-networks that are based on how we’ve trained them. Our genetics, our environment, but also the patterns that we have and if we’re always looking towards the negative, the frustrating, the irritating, what we don’t like, that’s what we notice because that’s where our brains take us.

Ed Leon: You’re saying goofiness aside, it works.

Kimberlee Bonura: When you shift your focus to look towards the good, you’ll notice the good more.

Ed Leon: All right, so you’ve taught us about mindfulness in other courses. What is it that you’re discussing in this new one?
Image of Mindfulness text - a guide for stress management

Kimberlee Bonura: We’re talking in particular about why and how mindfulness works for stress and for stress management and for making stress work for you. Some of it is that you’re about to go live on Facebook and talk in front of people and you’re feeling nervous. Most of feeling nervous is appraisal and fear and will it go wrong, so you’re out there in the future, but if I can be mindful and I’m having a great conversation with my friend, Ed, I’m right here right now having fun, then that stress, anxiety of arousal is less.

Ed Leon: Hey, for those people who have said, “mindfulness, mindfulness, it’s a buzz word. It’s not for me,” how do we get people over the hump, to try something?

Kimberlee Bonura: Well, they don’t have to try to meditate. You don’t ever have to meditate. You just need to try to be doing what you’re doing. One strategy we recommend in the course is when you brush your teeth, actually brush your teeth. Feel the foam of the tooth paste. Feel the brissels of your tooth brush. Be present in brushing your teeth for two minutes a day.

Ed Leon: Is that mindfulness?

Kimberlee Bonura: It is. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be some crazy, fancy buzz. It doesn’t have to be meditation or a yoga studio or whatever. It just means that you are doing in the moment what you’re actually doing. Research shows that, when our thoughts wonder away from the present moment, that tends to make us less happy.

Ed Leon: Really? How about when you’re in the shower and you’re shampooing and then you just kind of snap to it again and you realize, “oh, I just lost two minutes shampooing and just my mind wandered.” Is that mindfulness or is that the opposite?

Image of Mindfulness quoteKimberlee Bonura: That’s the opposite, right. If you’re in the shower and you’re shampooing and you’re thinking, “oh, I love this citrus scent-

Ed Leon: I smell the mint.

Kimberlee Bonura: Yes, exactly. Brush your teeth and shower and actually brush your teeth and shower and there you go, mindfulness training.

Ed Leon: Wow. Okay, I think I can handle that.  All right, so is there a relationship between happiness and stress?

Kimberlee Bonura: There is. I think certainly people who have a better relationship with stress are more likely to have some happiness. Although, the research on happiness is fascinating stuff. We cover a whole lecture on happiness and people who rate being happy as a value, as something that they’re pursuing, actually end up lonelier and less satisfied with their life. Happiness is one of those things that if we’re chasing happiness, we’re probably not going to end up happy, but if we’re chasing meaning and connection, relationships, doing stuff we feel satisfied about, happiness will land on our shoulder, take us by surprise.

Happiness is one of those things that if we’re chasing happiness, we’re probably not going to end up happy.

Ed Leon: Right, it’s the stuff of happiness. Do you deal with the issue that is stress for kinds different than stress for adults? You have children. Is their stress different than our stress?

Kimberlee Bonura: I think the big thing in today’s very fast-paced, hectic life is that childhood is more stressful than it was when we were kids.

Ed Leon: Is that true for kids or is that parents making the value judgment.

Kimberlee Bonura: Well, that’s interesting. One big survey of parents, the parents thought their kid’s lives were relatively low stress, but the kids are exhibiting stomach issues, anxiety related disorders, sleep problems, things that reflect that the kids are feeling stressed. They just don’t have the language to say, “oh, I’m so stressed out.” Instead they might have a meltdown and have nightmares and not sleep well. I think that kids are exhibiting stress, but we’re not as adept to recognizing stress in our kids in a way that we can intervene.

Ed Leon: Is there a hierarchy of stress? Obviously there’s stress for, and you talk about this in the course, competition. Using it is an advantage versus the far end of the spectrum where soldiers who have been in war time action have post traumatic stress syndrome, that’s super stress, right? Talk to me about that spectrum of stress.

Kimberlee Bonura: Sure. We do talk about that in the course, that there’s a continuum. There is truly life and death stressful experiences. A pilot that the plane is about to go down or the soldier in combat or a young mother walking alone down the street in a difficult neighborhood where some violence is going on. All of those are more truly life and death situations. At the other end, we have those irritating moments that shouldn’t be stressful, but they flip us out.

Ed Leon: They seem to flip us out, right.

Kimberlee Bonura: Like the rude coffee clerk and you spend Image of opposite Arrows Stress VS Relax your whole day fuming, right? Some of what we talk about in the course is to distinguish from the ends of the continuum, plus also the stuff in the middle that could be stressful or not depending on how we look at it.

Ed Leon: How do we gain power over those?

Kimberlee Bonura: All of it is that mindset piece. Mindfulness helps. Recognizing, “am I reacting to this moment or am I reacting to something from yesterday or tomorrow.”

“Am I reacting to this moment or am I reacting to something from yesterday or tomorrow?”

Ed Leon: How is it that we have come to acknowledge … What is the impact of you talk about the pilot going down, that’s like a super spike of … Let’s say that person has a fairly manageable life stress ration, then they go through a super stressful moment in time. At the end of the day, that’s only 5 minutes out of, but it’s highly impactful. How has science come to terms with that or do we have a name for it and how that moment can affect, is that the post traumatic stress syndrome-

Kimberlee Bonura: Maybe. Certainly some people in that stressful situation will end up with post traumatic stress disorder. Other people will experience what’s called post traumatic growth where maybe they struggle, but they work through it and they come out better and different on the other end. Other people will take some time to recover and end up back to their normal life. We all have a certain propensity to how we react to stress and environment, genetics, childhood upbringing, all of those things may impact it. I think what’s also very interesting is some of the research that the people who are most resilient and adapt best to stress are the ones who seem to actually have the biggest hormone spike in the stressful moment, so their body fluids, they get very aroused and then after wards, their hormones go back to baseline the fastest, so they’re most adept at controlling that emotional response.

Posttraumatic growth (PTG) or benefit finding refers to positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning.

Ed Leon: Keeping it from spilling into all areas of their lives.

Kimberlee Bonura: Right, exactly. That’s part of what we want to teach in this course is strategies to help you control your stress response, so that you can spike it when you need to, bring it back down to center when you’re ready to calm down and sleep well at night.

Ed Leon: Right, speaking of how to make stress work for you. We just went through the Olympics and athletes are obviously facing a stressful moment when they’re trying to go for the gold medal, but we have our little individual gold medals in life all the time.

Kimberlee Bonura: We do.

Ed Leon: How do we use it? What are some of the ways to use it to for enhancing the performance of our everyday lives?

Kimberlee Bonura: One of the fun areas of research that I really enjoy digging into is around good stress. There’s a lot of research that a little bit of stress, when we give ourselves time to recover, makes us actually better and more resilient at stress in the future. Again, this is a place that when you recognize, “I challenge myself, I learn something new, I end up better in the long run,” so then this stress has this higher order purpose and as we get older, challenging ourselves to learn new things, to try new things actually seems to impact the neuro-structure. It helps maintain healthy cognitive functioning, so that we maintain our abilities as we get older. Stress done right, done well, done within the context of some rest and recovery, can help us stay healthy all the way through their age.

Ed Leon: What is rest and recovery? All right, you’re one of the all time great torch podcast guests, but I remember the first time we did this, you were a little nervous, right? What is recovery, now you’re not, now, you’re an old pro, especially at great courses, you’re an old pro at doing awesome at great courses. What is recovery time after a stressful moment?

Kimberlee Bonura: Okay, if you’re a weight lifter, here’s a great analogy. You’re a weight lifter, you shouldn’t life the same muscles two days in a row, because your body needs 48 hours to recover between workouts, so that the muscle tissue can repair before you’re lifting the same thing. It’s the same kind of thing with stress. If you’re doing a stressful event and you did it back to back to back all day long everyday, you’d never have time to stop and take a deep breath and let your hormones come back to normal, let your breath come back to normal. How long the recovery you need probably depends a lot on your personal style, you’re personal preferences. Maybe a certain component on your genetic pre-disposition, but making stress work for you, part of that is figuring how much rest and recovery do I need. Maybe I need a year between podcasts if I’m a professor. If I’m you, maybe I only need a few days.
Image of Healthy Life Sign

Ed Leon: All right, I hope not. It’s how to make stress work for you. Phew, now I need some recovery time. This is Kimberlee Bethany-Bonura and you can see her courses on TheGreat Great, great subscription service. How to stay fit as you age and how to boost your physical and mental energy and the new one is coming out next year. Thanks again for joining us.

Kimberlee Bonura: Thanks so much for having me.

Ed Leon: We’ll see you guys soon right here at the great course. Great to see you.

From the Lecture Series: How to Make Stress Work for You
Taught by Professor Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, Ph.D.