When we hear the word stress, many of us immediately think about its negative impact on the body. We’ve been taught that stress is a major cause of physical and emotional health issues, ranging from the common cold to much more serious illnesses like heart disease, depression and addiction. However, new research reveals something very different and extremely promising: stress adversely affects our health only when we perceive it to be harmful to us. Stress has the potential to become our ally rather than our enemy.
Health psychologist and expert in the field Kelly McGonigal shares a powerful study conducted by Harvard University, in which 30,000 adults (ages 34-90) were tracked over an 8-year period. Participants were asked to rate their stress levels and whether or not they believed stress was dangerous to their health. Researchers then examined the death rate of this large group of people over the 8 years and found a 43% increased risk of dying for those with high stress levels; however, this only pertained to those who also believed stress was harmful to their health. People who didn’t believe that stress affected their health had the lowest death rate of everyone, including those who didn’t report experiencing high levels of stress.
Our minds have the ability to change how our bodies respond to stress. We’ve been told for years, by everyone from our doctors to our mothers, that stress makes us sick. And we’ve believed it. Most of us have personally experienced coming down with a cold during a stressful time, and have seen friends and relatives become ill where high stress was named the culprit. We naturally gravitate toward this generalization because we’ve personally experienced the link between stress and physical health – it’s easy to accept. However, giving stress this negative stereotype interferes with our body’s ability to build resilience. And up until recently, our perception of stress has been missing a major element: the power of how we think.
In order to abandon the bad rep we’ve given stress, we need “to learn how to control our minds, rather than letting our minds control us”, author and mental toughness expert LaRae Guy shares. When we believe we’ll become sick, there’s a far greater likelihood we will indeed become sick. So we need to make a concerted effort to acknowledge that our previous way of thinking about stress has been flawed. This won’t happen instantly for most of us. As much as we like to believe our beliefs are based on objective and rational thinking, Guy notes, “most often what we believe is based on information that confirms what we previously thought and ignores information that challenges it”. Developing your mental toughness and staying flexible in your ability to adjust your beliefs (especially in cases like this where there’s substantial and inspiring evidence!) can tremendously improve the quality of your life.
It Empowers You. In order to embrace this new view of stress, let’s imagine what happens to you when you’re experiencing it: Your heartbeat increases, your forehead might begin to sweat and your body tenses up. In the past, we’ve associated these symptoms as a weakening of the body and a sign that you’re not coping well. But let’s re-think this for a moment and, taking McGonigal’s advice, remind yourself: Your heart is beating faster so that more oxygen is able to reach your brain. Your body is rising to meet a challenge. Your body is not weakened by the experience, it’s actually empowered by it and building your resilience.
It Strengthens Relationships That Matter. One lesser known tidbit about stress is that when we experience it, our bodies release a lot of oxytocin (a neurohormone you may already be familiar with, as the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone). This stress hormone causes us to feel compassion, to reach out to those we care about and to feel empathy for others. When we’re enduring periods of high stress, our pituitary glands pump out oxytocin like crazy, and this causes us to reach out to others for meaningful connections. It helps us prioritize relationships, makes us feel supported and shows us we’re not alone. And through developing and maintaining these relationships, we become more resilient.
Although most of us don’t enjoy the feeling of stress, it’s a natural and pretty inevitable part of life. The most healthy approach we can have is to accept stress as part of our journey and to embrace it for the resilience and strength it provides. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, as the old adage goes – and in this case, it’s pretty true. Stress isn’t the enemy unless you choose it to be. Trust your body’s ability to respond well to the challenges of stress, and to come through it empowered by the experience.
* Song To Get You In The Mood: “Pressure” by Nadia Ali, Starkillers & Alex Kenji.
“Pressure”, a hot EDM track with an inspiring hook that makes you want to dance. Love – love – love your stress, baby.
“Embrace Stress it’s Good For You”, BBC article: http://goo.gl/lq2NJh
“Forget What You Heard About Stress…”, article by Kelly McGonigal: https://goo.gl/qzN6Ti
Kelly McGonigal,“How To Make Stress Your Friend” (Ted Talk): http://goo.gl/LsFQoH
“The Biology of Courage”: http://hippocampus.co.za/the-biology-of-courage/
“How To Make Stress Your Friend, article”: http://goo.gl/4wPhYT