Changing Minds: The Upside of Stress

If you were asked right now about the level of stress you've endured within the last year, would you estimate it to be low, moderate, or high?

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist and Stanford lecturer, asked the audience this question last year at her (excellent) TED Talk lecture, entitled "How to Make Stress Your Friend."  She then shared research findings that changed her perspective on stress; according to a 2012 study, which tracked 30,000 Americans for eight years, participants were asked the same question and one more: whether they believed stress was bad for them.  Those who estimated their stress level as "high" were 43% more likely to die--but only if they also believed stress was harmful for their health.  Those who believed it wasn't specifically bad for them, even those who had "high" levels of stress, lived longer.

Can believing stress to be harmful really affect your physical health and lifespan?(!)

After discovering this new research and contemplating it herself, Dr. McGonigal began to regret teaching others for years how harmful stress is for your physical and mental health.  She said, "I have changed my mind about stress, and today, I want to change yours."  

The Upside of Stress

Dr. McGonigal concluded, "When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress."  Incredible!  Her suggestion: instead of viewing your body's natural stress response as harmful, think of the increased heart rate, shortened and quickened breath, and possible sweat as your body's readiness to meeting a challenge.  An energized state, rather than a dreadful stress-induced panic, similar to deciding to view our day positively.  When a Harvard study's participants were instructed to view a stressful situation in these terms, the results were pretty amazing.  With their changed minds, Dr. McGonigal said, they were "less stressed out, less anxious, and more confident," and she added that their physical stress response changed as well.  Instead of the typical increased heart rate and constricted blood vessels common to an increase in stress, the blood vessels of these participants, despite the increase in stress, actually remained relaxed throughout the stress.  If this is the case, that our attitude can change our physical response to stress, then it could be the key to breaking the link between chronic stress and cardiovascular disease.  She adds, "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."

The Social Side of Stress

Another incredible fact McGonigal shared is that your body produces a neuro-hormone called oxytocin.  This hormone encourages a need to connect with friends and family members and increases empathy.  It encourages you to conduct yourself in ways to strengthen human relationships--it's been called the "cuddle hormone," because it is released during hugs.  A lesser known fact about this hormone, however, is that it is a stress hormone, released along with the other stress hormones, like adrenaline.  This is part of your body's natural stress response and it promotes seeking out positive relationships and support, particularly in times of stress.  Incredibly, oxytocin also helps your body actually heal and recover from the negative effects of stress.  It is not only an anti-inflammatory and a blood-vessel-relaxer, but it also actually helps heart cells regenerate!  Caring for others and being cared for by others brings about these benefits.  Just like the first set of questions, when study participants were asked a new set: what is your level of stress? and how often do you help others (friends, family, community)? the findings were similar.  Those who helped others and made human connections were at a lower risk for death, even with increased stress.

McGonigal sums this up in the following, "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."

When asked about whether she suggests people work stressful jobs vs. non-stressful jobs, she asserts that finding meaning in your life and work is preferable to simply attempting to "avoid discomfort."  And she concludes with the following advice, "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."

Like Dr. McGonigal, I have been convinced of and consumed with the deleterious effects of stress.  I have perhaps even been a stress-avoider.  Her advice, according to the data, is not specifically to seek out stress, but rather to embrace it and use it to your advantage when faced with it.  What a beautiful, helpful, and potentially life-extending practice in mindfulness.

Image Source:
From her June 2013 TED Talk Lecture "How to Make Stress Your Friend"

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