Episode 12: The Science of Stress and Stress Reduction with Professor Sonia Lupien



“Stress is a friend, but it can become an enemy if you don’t take care of it.” – Professor

Sonia Lupien

This episode of the Numinus Podcast is dedicated to Bell Let’s Talk day, January 30th, 2019. Please share this post on social media (see instructions below) to contribute to mental health initiatives focusing on anti-stigma, care and access, research, and workplace health.

In this episode, Dr. Joe talks with professor Sonia Lupien. Sonia is a Full Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal. She is also the Founder and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress. Sonia is a highly prolific research scientist, with dozens of publications in some of the top journals in her field.

In recent years though she has directed some of this ambition to making her scientific discoveries more accessible to the public. For example, she set up a website to explain all of her lab’s findings in accessible language. She published Par Amour du Stress (the english version is called Well Stressed). And she appears regularly on local radio and TV. She also recently released a stress management iPhone app called iS.M.A.R.T., which was funded by Bell Let’s Talk.

Sonia was generous enough to share with us one of her worksheets from her DeStress for Success program. You can download it here. It’ll come in handy during the podcast.

In this episode, Sonia and Joe discussed:

  • The basics of stress physiology
  • The upside of stress and the importance of the stress mindset
  • How stress is impacted by social media
  • The link between stress and mental health
  • The strategies her research has identified as the most effective for reducing stress

To help support the Bell Let’s Talk campaign please share this episode on social media. And if you want to support the Bell Let’s Talk campaign directly in other ways, on January 30th, Bell will donate 5 cents for the following actions:

  1. Twitter: Every tweet and retweet using #BellLetsTalk and every Bell Let’s Talk video view on their Twitter page
  2. Facebook: Every use of the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or every Bell Let’s Talk video view on their Facebook page
  3. Instagram: Every Bell Let’s Talk video view on their Instagram page
  4. Snapchat: Every snap sent using the Bell Let’s Talk filter or every Bell Let’s Talk video view
  5. Texts and Phone Calls: Every mobile and long distance call and text made by Bell Canada

And finally, if you are struggling with stress in any way, please feel free to reach out to Numinus for information on our therapies, mindfulness trainings, and workplace programs at numinus.com.

You can stay in touch with Dr. Joe on



Here are some highlights of the conversation with Sonia:

On the Stress Mindset

“There is as much positive effects of stress and cortisol than there are negative.”

One of the things that I talk to my clients quite a bit about is the mindset about stress. There was a large epidemiological study in the US with tens of thousands of participants that followed them for many years. One of the significant predictors of early mortality was a belief about stress. That stress is bad.

The implication was that if you’re able to view stress in your life that it makes for a positive thing, you’re going to be much more adapted for modern life. Do you buy that?

“I do.

Crum was the first person to talk about stress mindset. He did a study where he split people on the basis of their stress mindset.

A lot of people have a negative stress mindset. So they think that stress is always bad. It decreases performance, it makes you sick etc. But you have some people that have positive stress mindsets. They say, ‘You know. Stress is good for performance.’

He took people like this and took them to his lab and measured stress hormones. He found that those with a negative stress mindset had a much more significant level of cortisol than those who had a positive stress mindset.

Many scientists asked, why do people have a negative stress mindset? I think there are two reasons for this: one, the media, and two, scientists. If you look at the news, everything is negative. Scientists as well, it’s more popular to study negative stuff than to study positive stuff.

The second part of the study of Crum. For a week he presented videos summarizing the positive effects of stress to people who had a negative stress mindset. And he was able to decrease stress hormones in these people. In contrast, he presented videos the toxic effects of stress to people who had positive stress mindsets, and he increased stress hormones.

So basically what we are reading on Instagram, Facebook, the newspaper, whatever it is can a significant impact on our stress. It’s more important than ever to start talking about the positive effects of stress, teaching people about how stress can benefit us.”

. . .

“I’m dreaming of the day where people just know what stress is and understand that acutely it’s positive, chronically it’s negative.”

. . .

“Stress is a friend, but it can become an enemy if you don’t take care of it.”


On Social Media

“It is what you read, not necessarily the amount that may have a bad impact on your stress system.”

What is the best way to shift people’s mindsets about stress?

“Social media. Many studies are studying emotional contagion on social media. There was a study where they modified the Facebook newsfeed to present them with more positive news than negative news from the East to the West of the United States. And then for a week, they look at the contagion of the sharing of these posts. They found that when people receive positive news, they are more likely to share positive news and give positive news.

In a study we did, we found that when women read negative news, they are significantly more reactive to stress afterwards. We also measured their memory of the negative news 24 hours later, and the women were remembering 30% more of the negative news.

The next time you read the newspaper, look at the valence, positive or negative, of what you read. 97 percent of it is negative. Always.

So we think that it doesn’t have a negative impact on us because we’re just browsing Facebook or reading the newspaper while drinking a coffee in the morning, it doesn’t have an effect on us. It does have an effect, particularly in women. I don’t know why.

A colleague of mine, a journalist, Laurent Imbault, decided to create a website just for positive news. And if you feel bad in the morning, just go read this, and tell me how you feel. It’s amazing. It’s called Goodness TV.”

. . .

“One day someone will raise the point that the media has a public health effect that

costs a lot of money. And I hope that one day someone will calculate how much it



On Decreasing Stress

“The brain is a superb machine of adaptation.”

What are the determinants of stress? What makes you produce stress hormones?

“What are the determinants of stress? I told you when your brain detects a threat, it produces stress hormones and these stress hormones. But the question is, what makes you produce stress hormones? What are the determinants of a stress response?

The first distinction that we make is between an absolute and relative stressor. An absolute stressor is a real threat to your survival. We don’t have a lot of absolute stressors these because we’re in a very wealthy, educated, and healthy society. Yet the World Health Organization predicts depression related to chronic stress will be the second cause of invalidity after cardiovascular disorders which are related to stress as well. We have a problem.

This is where scientists have discovered that we’re suffering not because we’re surrounded by absolute stressors, but by relative stressors. Scientists have found that there are four characteristics of a situation that will induce this physiological stress response. I challenge your audience to find a stressful situation that cannot be defined by at least one of these characteristics.




Threatening to the ego

Sense of low control

Each time your brain is exposed to one or more of these four characteristics, you will produce a stress response. Stress. Don’t go NUTS.

We teach people the NUTS characteristics to help people deconstruct stressful situations. For example, Sarah stresses me out at work. Is it because she is novel? Is it because she’s unpredictable? Etc. Then we help people make sense of their stressor. And when you make sense of a stressor, you produce less hormones.”

Can you unpack that a little bit? What does it mean to make sense of a stressor?

“When you have a stressful situation, the best way to deal with it is to first deconstruct it. We give kids homework. So we say, ‘For a week, you’re going to write down all of the situations you find stressful.’ ‘I got into a conflict with my mom.’ ‘I got into a fight with my brother.’

You’re going to draw a little grid. And on the grid, you’re going to put the four letters of stress N. U. T. S. And for each of the situations you’re going to put a little X for any of the characteristics that explain this stressor. For example, I got into a fight with my brother. Was it novel? ‘No, I always fight with my brother.’ Was it unpredictable? ‘Yes. This time it was.’ Was it threatening to your ego? ‘Yes, I lost.’ Did you have control over the situation. ‘No, I didn’t have the feeling I had control.’

Now you know why this particular situation was stressful for you. A well defined problem is a problem almost solved.

Once you have deconstructed your stressor, you will reconstruct your stressor. You have to give the feeling of control of the situation to your brain because that way you’ll have less stress hormones. This situation was stressful because it was unpredictable. So what can I do to make it more predictable? Find a plan A, a plan B, a plan C, a plan D.

What you have to understand is that 90% of people will never put into action their plan B. I don’t care because study show that when you have a stressor, if you bring to your consciousness your plan B that you had to deal with it, this mere idea will significantly decrease the stress hormones because it gives the sense of control to your brain to stop producing these stress hormones.

Having a plan restores a sense of control.

On Mindfulness Being Mandatory in the Classroom

“You have to let the child do whatever they want to do, when they want to do it. I remember when I said this to the school director, she looked at me and she said, ‘Madame Lupien, it doesn’t make sense. They are seven years old. They cannot choose.’

I said, ‘On the contrary, kids are much better than adults to do what they need to do to reduce their stress response.’ Follow your intuition. I think that the problem we have so far is that everybody is looking outside of them for universal solutions to deal with stress.

Your body has everything it needs to deal with stress. Think about it. If it didn’t, we would be dead. We would have never survived to mammoths for example. We have inside of us what we need. So follow your intuition. One week it can be something. Next week, it can be something else.”

Advice to Parents

“Each time I give a conference to parents, I say in the beginning, ‘If you really want to help your child, don’t talk to me about stress in your children. They’re quite good at dealing with it because they follow their intuition. If you really want to help your children to deal with stress, start by decreasing your own.”

On Negative Emotions

“How long does an emotion last? Most people think that when they have a negative emotion, it will last forever. Then they start freaking out and ruminating and then it increases the stress hormones.

Studies show that the worst emotion you can have lasts a maximum of 48 hours. Sometimes–if you’re not depressed–the best thing to do is to do nothing because it’s the same as pain. Pain is not fun, right? But why does pain exist? Because it tells your brain, take out your hand from the oven. It’s hot. When you burn yourself, what do you do? You cut your hand? No. You wait for it to go away.

Why don’t we do this for emotions? For many people when they have a negative emotion, it’s as if they have a hot potato in their hand. They don’t know what to do with it. They have to get rid of it. And exchange it for a positive emotion, and they’re ready to give up the dog, divorce, and sell the house.

Just know that most of the time, a negative emotion–sadness is the longest emotion, shame is the shortest with 30 minutes–so if you know that the longest emotion is sadness, and it lasts usually 48 hours, sometimes just doing nothing, naming it, and it goes away. Don’t you think it’s amazing information to give people?”

Last Thoughts

“Your body is an amazing machine to deal with stress. Follow your intuition.”


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