Stress. It makes your breathing quicken, your forehead sweat, your heart pound. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters. Stress may only be bad for you if you believe that way. When you have something difficult to be done – potentially stressful, think proactive, challenge yourself and your stress response become healthier, so you actually recover from stress faster.
Here is what we can learn from health psychologist Kelly McGonigal TED Talk “How to make stress your friend”.
She prompts us to look at stress from positive side and uncovers powerful mechanism for stress reduction.
After 10 years of fighting with stress Kelly made a strong confession from TED stage. She’s been telling people, that stress increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. Like ‘Stress equals enemy’ with no doubts.
New study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years made McGonigal rethink her whole approach to stress. One of the key questions was “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”
People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for their health.
Surprisingly, people who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.
Thus the researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you. And believing stress is bad for you in a year took more lives than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.
Changing how you think about stress can make you healthier. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.
In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict. And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It’s not really healthy to be in this state all the time.
But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage. Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.
“I no longer want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress.”
Hopefully the next time your heart is pounding from stress, you’re going to remember this talk and you’re going to think to yourself, this is my body helping me rise to this challenge. And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of the stress response and the idea is this: Stress makes you social. To understand this side of stress, we need to talk about a hormone, oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone. It fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships. Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about.
Most people don’t understand about oxytocin: It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
Oxytocin also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. Oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart.
All of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress.
Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.
For every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family crisis, that increased the risk of dying by 30%. But — and I hope you are expecting a “but” by now — but that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Zero. Caring created resilience.
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 challenge yourself, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.
Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy.
And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone. So challenge yourself wisely!
Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. And so I would say that’s really the best way to make decisions, is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.