We all know that a little bit of stress helps motivate us but too much stress is bad for you, or is it? Most people, including me, that write about chronic stress talk about the devastating impact on our mental or physical health. But a recent study has made me rethink how I look at stress.
A study, Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality (Keller et al, 2012) tracked 30000 adults in the USA for 8 years. The researchers asked, “How much stress have you experienced in the past year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then they waited to see who died by consulting public death records. No surprise, those who had experienced a lot of stress in the past year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. The big surprise to me, this finding was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health. Not only that, people who experienced a lot of stress but did not think it was harmful had the lowest risk of dying, even lower than those who had very little stress. So the belief that stress is harmful to your health seems to be more harmful than the stress itself!
According to Dr Kelly McGonigal (a Stanford University Health Psychologist), this translates to more than 20,000 Americans a year dying not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you, so she urges us to see stress as positive and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.
We all know the physical response to being under stress, heart pounding, breathing faster, breaking into a sweat. Normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we are not coping very well under pressure. “But what if you viewed them instead as your body was energized, preparing for you to meet this challenge?” A Harvard study, Mind over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress, (Jamieson et al, 2012) she cited validates this view. In the study, participants were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful (breathing faster, for instance, gets more oxygen to the brain) before they were exposed to a standard stress test (such as doing a math test in public). The participants sailed through the test. Get ready for the significant finding: Ordinarily, when stressed, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict. Those in the study experienced pounding hearts, but their blood vessels stayed relaxed. According to Dr McGonigal, the response “actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage".
Dr McGonigal states that when oxytocin (you may know this as the cuddle hormone) is released as part of the stress response, our biology is nudging us to seek support instead of bottling everything up. The hormone also benefits the heart (which has oxytocin receptors). Accordingly, when you reach out to others (either to seek help or give support) your stress response becomes healthier and you recover faster. Thus, our stress response has its own secret weapon for resilience, which is human connection.
One more study: Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality (Poulin et al, 20013) tracked a thousand people over five years. Predictably, the ones who experienced recent major stressful events (such as financial difficulties) incurred a 30 percent increased risk of dying. But - surprise, surprise - those who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no increase in dying. Thus, says Dr McGonigal:
The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.
This made me think its time to rethink my beliefs around stress, may be its time for you to do the same?
In addition, why not help yourself face life's challenges by trusting yourself and building a supportive network of friends, family and colleagues around you.
See Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend