Reconsidering stress may help us find the hidden benefits in this typically maligned phenomenon.
Recent studies have shown that thinking that stress will have a negative impact on your health may, in fact, increase your risk of suffering from stress-related physical issues, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression. That’s right—being stressed about being stressed is bad business. In a 2012 study published in Health Psychol, participants who identified as “highly stressed” and felt that this stress was harmful to them experienced a 43% increased risk of premature death. Interestingly, however, the participants who identified with some level of stress but did not worry about its effects were less likely to suffer a premature death than those who identified as hardly stressed. This suggests that some stress is beneficial—we’ve just got to believe in its benefits, or at least believe that it won’t harm us.
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress and health psychologist known for her 2013 TED Talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend, suggests that we take a more nuanced approach to stress and understand that humans are capable of a variety of stress responses—not just “Fight-or-Flight,” which we hear so much about.
McGonigal asserts, “when you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” If we believe that our body’s reaction to a stressful moment (e.g. increased heart rate, sweating, etc.) is actually preparing us to deal with the moment, or even energizing us, she explains, we’re less likely to experience the negative effects of stress, namely, constricted blood vessels. In a study McGonigal cites in her TED Talk, participants who encountered stressful moments but were encouraged to think of their stress as something positive experienced relaxed blood vessels—even if their hearts were still pounding in response to the moment, looking more like what happens in moment of “joy and courage.”
But stress may have even more potential to benefit us. According to McGonigal, stress makes us social. Oxytocin (a.k.a. “the cuddle hormone”), primes us to strengthen our social bonds and crave physical contact—the side of oxytocin that we’re probably more familiar with. Surprisingly, oxytocin may be considered a stress hormone since it is released by the pituitary gland in response to stressful moments. As McGonigal explains, oxytocin is “nudging us” to share our feelings during or immediately after times of stress. What’s more, oxytocin has anti-inflammatory qualities that helps heart cells’s health after stress-induced damage.
In short, the body has everything it needs to weather a stressful situation and come out stronger for it—we just have to 1) believe and 2) not be afraid to reach out to seek or offer help.
This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily drop all of our efforts towards stress reduction (keep up that yoga!)—after all, if we’re chronically stressed, we’re missing out on the much-needed down time that recover in time for the next round. It would be worth the effort, however, to be more mindful during times of stress and try to trust the body’s plan to get us through. Perhaps reminding others of this joyful fact (i.e. reaching out and activating the good oxytocin!!) may be the best place to start.
How do you cope with stress? Do you tend to think it’s harmful? Or do have you found ways to embrace it?
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Photo: Catherine McMahon via Unsplash