271 – Using Stress to Your Advantage, with Jeanette Morgan

Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dr. Jeanette Morgan discuss how our perception of stress changes our physiological response to stress. They look at how we can relearn what stress means to us, how we model a healthy response to stress to kids, and why its important to understand why we get stressed to begin with.

Jeanette Morgan, PsyD

Jeanette Morgan, PsyD, earned her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. She provides individual therapy utilizing evidence-based treatments to children, adolescents, and adults who struggle with anxiety, panic, OCD, tic disorders, trauma, grief and loss, relationship problems, singleness, self-esteem, and behavioral problems. In addition to her therapy work, Dr. Morgan is also a licensed educational psychologist with almost 20 years of special education experience, first as a Special Education Teacher and then as a School Psychologist. Dr. Morgan’s warm, compassionate, and optimistic style encourages those she works with to connect, feel seen and heard, and feel hopeful.  She believes that everyone is doing the best that they can with what they know, and that expanding what they know through discovering their personal patterns and learning new skills is empowering and builds resilience.

Key Points

  • Understanding that stress is helpful for our body shifts how our body and hormones respond.
  • When we are stressed, we release oxytocin which encourages us to reach out and connect with people we care about.
  • We teach kids that stress is a positive response from our body by modeling it and talking to them about stress.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 271, Using Stress to Your Advantage, with Jeanette Morgan.

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:29] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:34] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, on most episodes we get one Dr. Morgan. On this episode today we get double the Dr. Morgan’s. I’m so glad to welcome our expert guest today, someone you know well, Jeanette Morgan. Jeanette earned her doctorate in clinical psychology at Azusa Pacific University. She provides individual therapy using evidence based treatments to children, adolescents, and adults who struggle with anxiety, panic, OCD, tic disorders, trauma, grief and loss, relationship problems, singleness, self-esteem, and behavioral problems. In addition to her therapy work, Jeanette is also a licensed educational psychologist with almost 20 years of special education experience, first as a special education teacher and then as a school psychologist. Her warm, compassionate and optimistic style encourages those who work with her to feel connected, heard and feel hopeful. She believes that everyone is doing the best they can with what they know, and that expanding what they know through discovery in their personal patterns and learning new skills is empowering and builds resilience. And Sandie, unlike many of our guests, I’ve had a chance to know Jeanie for many years and I can say she is all of those things. Jeanie, so glad to have you here on the show.

Jeanette [00:01:58] Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Sandie [00:02:00] Well, not any more excited than I am. And just for our listeners, there is a stronger connection here. Dr. Jeanie Morgan is my daughter and I have followed her career in just amazement and wonder at her persistence and perseverance and excellence in everything she does. I recently asked her to come and speak to my interns at Vanguard because with COVID and boomeranging back and forth, in-person zoom, so much stress, almost every conversation starts with, “I’m so stressed.” So, I ask her to come. It was an amazing conversation, and so I ask her to come on the Ending Human Trafficking podcast with us because everyone’s talking about how stressed our kids are, the mental health challenges. And so, Jeanie, thank you for joining me and let’s talk about kids and stress.

Jeanette [00:03:12] Sounds good.

Sandie [00:03:13] Tell us what is the secret to finding the stress advantage?

Jeanette [00:03:21] The secret is changing our relationship with stress. So, we have heard all of these messages for so long that stress is detrimental, detrimental to our health. You’re going to die. It’s detrimental to relationships because you’re going to be irritable. All of those different things. When in reality, our stress response was actually designed to be helpful for us, to keep us safe. To help us meet the challenges that we have in life and thrive. So changing how we talk to kids and helping them to not view it as this horrible thing that needs to be managed and instead kind of make it their friend and use it is really the change that we need to do in talking with our kids.

Sandie [00:04:12] So you’re talking about our perceptions in our relationship to stress?

Jeanette [00:04:18] Absolutely. Absolutely. How we view stress actually changes, not just how we relate to it, but it actually changes us at a physiological level; how our hormones respond. So, there’s been several studies over the last three or four decades that looks at how how we think about stress impacts how our bodies actually produce hormones. So, when we think and know that stress is bad for us, right, like all of the messages that we’re always told that stress is harmful, then we have the stress hormones that are produced and these are going to be produced no matter what. But we have cortisol and adrenaline–and you’ve all heard of cortisol, right, it’s like the one that the commercials all show how it gives you belly fat. So none of us want that. These hormones slow down your digestive system, they slow down your growth, they slow down the physiological processes that aren’t as important when you’re in a life threatening situation and you need to respond. So that’s the cortisol, the adrenaline. But what we don’t really talk about is that there’s also a hormone called DHEA that’s a neuro steroid. And that one actually does the opposite. It’s actually a growth hormone and it helps create new neurological pathways, et cetera. And when you understand that stress is actually, it’s a signal, it’s a response your body’s having to try and help you, then just by understanding that, your DHEA rises more than your cortisol levels. And when that happens, then you have a physiological response that’s healthy. It opens your blood vessels. It helps your, it strengthens your heart. There’s other hormones that also come as a result of that, including more oxytocin, which is a wonderful hormone that you may have heard of as the cuddle hormone because it makes you seek out others. It also is the bravery hormone, but it’s a it’s a strong hormone for resilience. So just by that one little mindset shift of recognizing that your stress hormone is actually meant to be your ally, you shift your whole biological response to it, which is absolutely amazing.

Sandie [00:06:51] It sounds like a magic button, and I just flip the switch. It cannot be that easy. You’re going to have to convince me.

Jeanette [00:07:01] Well, there’s been a lot of different studies, so they’ve done studies in really high stakes interviews where they have people being really critical, and of the interviewees, and before they go into these interviews, the groups are shown: one group is shown that stress is debilitating, kind of the same messages we’ve all received. And then another is shown stress is enhancing video and the people who were shown that stress is enhancing–so in a three minute video, these are not like long interventions, these are just, hey, let’s look at this differently. Let’s think about it differently. Those people did better in those interviews. They were rated by outside people–so blind raters–they performed better. And with this, they also again looked at their hormone responses through spit tests, et cetera, and heart rate monitors and all of those different kind of things. And again, all it was was just that one mental shift of understanding that our physiological stress response, the signal that we have that, hey, something’s important to us and we need to rise to this. If we understand that that response is helpful, then we actually can be healthier because of it.

Sandie [00:08:27] So then how do we move from a stress that is the typical what we’re told all the time to a mindset that is going to flip those stress hormones?

Jeanette [00:08:41] Well first, we need to acknowledge the stress response. So when we have it, we go, OK, yes, I’m feeling stressed. Then, actually look at it as a positive, almost in a welcoming way and recognize that the reason you’re feeling this is because something is important to you. Whatever the value is that’s being triggered, you wouldn’t be stressed if something wasn’t important to you. And it could be, you know, a relationship that’s important to you. It could be a job that’s important to you. It could be that maybe the job is not important and you’re feeling stressed, but maybe the job is helping you to attain something that’s important to you or giving you a sense of security or something in there that you value. And then instead of fighting that stress response and trying to manage it, make use of the energy that the stress response is giving you instead of wasting it, trying to manage that stress.

Sandie [00:09:46] So I shouldn’t look at this as a threat to my safety, but more as a challenge like climbing a summit.

Jeanette [00:09:58] Exactly, exactly. In any stressful situation, all of the stress hormones raise. But when you believe that stress is bad, cortisol raises higher than your DHEA, and that is what causes blood vessels constricting and a lot of other kind of negative responses that can have a detrimental impact on your physiological health and mental health, of course. But when you just make this one little shift and recognize that, actually, it’s my body helping me in preparing me to do well and to meet this challenge, then what happens is your stress hormones rise, but your DHEA rises higher than your cortisol and that is actually called the growth index. And the growth index actually predicts resiliency, even in extreme circumstances, like recovering from child abuse. So the growth index is such a powerful physiological response and powerful for us to understand that because it gives us such a simple tool to shift our relationship with the stress and the difficult times that we go through. Our body doing this is not our enemy, it’s actually our friend and trying to help us move through it and rise to meet those challenges.

Sandie [00:11:23] So after I heard you talk to my interns, I started thinking about imagining what was happening in my body. And the thing that stuck out to me was that my blood vessels remain open when my heart rate goes up and I see it as a challenge. So that means I got more oxygen in my brain and my focus is stronger. My vision is better, my hearing is sharper and then I feel like I’m ready to take it on. And that mindset means that when I’m done, I have a sense of having been in control, not being controlled. Now I’m wondering, how can I use that in my everyday life? Do I have to be stressed?

Jeanette [00:12:23] Well, if you’re not stressed, are you doing something meaningful? If there’s no stress, then it’s not that, not that all stress, you know anything that you’re doing relaxing, right? There’s there’s meaning there, but viewing it as yes, it is helpful. It actually does increase, it even increases your ability to problem solve, right? Because you have all of the oxygen going to your brain. So more of your frontal cortex is activated, which is where you where you problem-solve and you make sense of things and you plan. So being able to access that in all situations, even in the smallest little thing, right? You know, oh, it feels stressful to go to the grocery store. It’s like, OK, I feel a little stressed. I’m still going to go to this grocery store because I value eating, high value, feeding my family. I value whatever that is, and okay I feel a little nervous about it. Maybe because there’s going to be people and they’re feeling a little social anxiety. That your heart rate’s going to increase, maybe your hands get a little sweaty. And instead of viewing that as, Oh no, I’m going to have a panic attack, oh no, I’m not going to be able to handle this. Oh no, this is terrible. My body’s my enemy here. And instead looking to go, OK, my hands are a little sweaty. My heart’s racing a little bit. OK, that’s my body actually preparing me to do well, my body preparing me to get in that store and get those groceries and deal with the people that are in front of me. So it’s shifting. It’s like, OK, when I feel these physiological sensations, it’s not a bad thing. It’s actually helpful. My body is truly trying to help me to approach life and find joy and meaning and all of those wonderful things by helping me meet these challenges.

Sandie [00:14:27] So stress is more than survival. It’s actually about achieving what you want to do, giving you the power and the ability and what you need in the moment to be successful.

Jeanette [00:14:42] Absolutely. And, you know, if you think about it, if we didn’t have any stress, we would sit on the couch and be couch potatoes. Because why do anything? Why reach out to people? Why go to work? Why do anything if we didn’t have a certain level of stress? So it’s necessary? It’s the beautiful–haven’t talked too much about this–but the other beautiful part about stress is when you are going through a stressful and challenging time, the oxytocin rising when you see it as helpful also helps you to reach out to others. So you’re connecting. Which that, we need that, we need to connect. That kind of, that builds resiliency. So it’s a powerful, powerful, powerful thing to understand how much our stress actually supports us socially at work, in life, and just all the different ways.

Sandie [00:15:42] So when we talk to our kids who when they’re stressed, they sometimes pull back. How do we talk to them so that they understand stress is their friend and what they’re feeling is okay?

Jeanette [00:15:59] That’s a great question. We stop talking about it and modeling it as a bad thing. So, you know, if you think about all the self-talk that we have, but not even just itself, it’s what we say, say out loud. Oh my goodness, I’m so stressed I can’t handle one more thing. Oh my goodness, I’m so stressed I can’t, I just want to go hide in my room. I don’t want to see anybody, all of those different things that we, we say. With kids, we need to watch our own self, our own talk in front of them and start talking instead about, “Oh hey, I’ve got a lot. I’m feeling stressed. How can I use this?” And with kids helping them go, OK, you have a lot going on. You’re dealing with a pandemic. You’re not able to see your friends in the way you want to see them. You’re experiencing a lot of disappointments and it’s hard and your body. How’s your body responding? And help them kind of recognize, you know, oh, my body’s feeling this way. OK, how can we use that? Is your body trying to make you feel bad? Like, is that really what our body is designed to do? No, our bodies are designed to be our friends, or to help us. So with the kid helping them to actually change how they view their physiological responses. Oh, when my heart starts to race, that’s not because I’m so scared I can’t handle it. That’s because my body’s trying to send oxygen to my brain so that I can, I can act. I can be faster. I can, I can hear better. I can see better. I could, it’s like a superpower. So changing how we talk with kids about it as well about our own stress in front of them, as well as instead of with them saying, Oh, you’re so stressed, I know. Why don’t you, why don’t you go play a game and and relax? You know, why don’t you go– You’re so stressed. You’re so stressed. And instead help them to use it.

Sandie [00:17:57] I heard you say something earlier. You said that stress means that something matters to you. How do I communicate that to a child?

Jeanette [00:18:10] I think it’s asking them because, you know, with kids, you can ask them, like, what’s important? You can ask them about values. And kids, even at six and seven, they get it. You know, it’s like, well, maybe my mom matters to me. My dad matters to me. Getting to play with my friends matters to me. So asking them, when you’re feeling this way, what are you, what are you thinking about? What are you hoping will happen? What are you hoping you can do? What are you hoping for? And by shifting to that, it’s like, then you can have a conversation about what’s important to them because they’re going to tell you, Oh, I’m hoping that I get to spend time with my friends. Oh, so your friends are important to you? Yes. So it all leads to conversations with them about what’s important. Maybe it’s important for them to do well. Maybe it’s important, you know, for their teacher to like them. Whatever it is, but then using that and going, OK, so your body, your heart beating faster, your hands being sweaty, that’s because your body’s trying to help you to have more oxygen so you can get what you want, or you can get what is meaningful to you.

Sandie [00:19:29] So the media is feeding us a very different story, Dr. Morgan, I’m sorry. I went on the internet and just did a quick search, and there were millions of hits that linked stress and fear and trauma and withdrawal. And I didn’t see it as a positive. How are we going to flip that switch for our kids right now?

Jeanette [00:19:57] It’s such, I mean it is hard because we are bombarded, bombarded by these messages. And they, it’s funny because when I first was was really learning all of this I was working in a university setting. And there were signs all over the hallways, like near the counseling center I worked in. Signs all over the hallways about how bad stress was for you. And that just drove me crazy because now I know, oh, it’s how you think. And so we’re setting everybody up to think badly about it and then have an unhealthy response. And the news that’s out there about stress being bad, it’s not that it’s wrong. I mean, if you believe it’s bad for you, your body is going to have this response. Your cortisol is going to be higher and it is going to be unhealthy. So from a global perspective, I suppose, it’s somehow getting the messages that are coming out from the medical world, et cetera, to change and get this message out there to more people. But from an individual level, from the kids in your home, to the kids in your classroom, to the students, the university students you work with in a classroom, et cetera, getting this message out to them, helping them to look for what things stress me out and why. What’s the value I have that is being activated here? That’s making me feel stress? OK, now how is that stress response trying to actually support me and help me to get through it? And it’s at an individual level. I think it’s not something at this point. There’s a way to get around all of the dire messages that are out in the world and on the internet.

Sandie [00:21:53] Well, you’ve changed the way I talk to myself about this. I tell myself when I have to convert another class to Zoom that I need to be courageous and I need to think about how important it is for me to connect with my students. And it completely refrains how I turn my computer on and how I start that class. I want more DHEA than cortisol for a lot of reasons, but mostly so that I can be successful in what matters to me.

Jeanette [00:22:32] Yes. That’s exactly, exactly the response that I want.

Sandie [00:22:39] All right. All right. So back to you, Dave.

Dave [00:22:43] Thank you both for this conversation. I’ve learned so much from both of you over the years. And I hope that you will take the next step as well to go further. We’re inviting you to take that first step. If you’re listening to the show for the first time or maybe, maybe it’s the second or third time you’ve listened. Go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. You can download a copy of Sandie’s Guide The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. And as we all know, stress shows up in so many places in our lives, affects so many of our decisions, and of course, affects the conversations we have about trafficking in such a significant way. It’s a great starting point for you, and perhaps you have been listening for a bit and have been utilizing the show. And if you have, we’re inviting you to join us on Patreon. We’re building and expanding our community of advocates this year. And you can become a patron. How does it work? Just go online to endinghumantrafficking.org as well. You’ll see a link there for Patreon. It’ll give you access to bonus episodes like the one we’re doing today. Also, exclusive resources and toolkits, so you can join us for $5 a month and access all of those benefits. You can certainly get more if you’d like. A thank you to those of you who have already supported us, continue to support us. We’re really honored for the work you are doing, not only to bring the lessons from our conversations into your work, but also to continue to support the work of Sandie and the Global Center for Women Justice. And if you haven’t yet join, go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. More information there on how you can get started to support us as a patron, or simply just to visit the links from today’s episode. And of course, we will be back in two weeks with our next conversation. Sandie, always a pleasure to be with you, and Jeanie. Have a great day and see it in two weeks.

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