Make Stress Your Friend (And Improve Your Health)
When is the last time you said, “I’m so stressed out” to yourself or a friend? 75% of Americans have experienced moderate to high levels of stress in the past month, so more likely than not, you say it often.
The media has taught us to think of stress as the enemy, as something that makes us sick and unhappy. In addition to complaining about high stress, many of us regularly take vacations and do other self-care practices to “destress” or “detox.”
This sentiment is echoed by businesses and their employees wanting help with stress management. As Chief Mindfulness Officer of Mastermind Meditation, I field several calls a week from HR departments eager to give employees new tools to manage stress.
But what if simply changing our view of stress could lower the associated health risks? In her TED Talk with nearly 20M views, Make Stress Your Friend, Stanford health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal invites us to think differently about stress. She references recent research showing that viewing stressors and stress symptoms as positive inputs, rather than as enemies, can mitigate the health risks of stress.
In a recent clinical study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers followed 30,000 adults for 8 years, asking them each year, “How much stress did you experience in the last year?” and, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then the study personnel used public health records to determine which subjects died.
The study found, unsurprisingly, that those adults who had indicated high levels of stress had a 43% increased risk of dying. However, this increased risk was only true for people who believed stress was harmful for health. People who did not believe stress was harmful for their health did not exhibit the increased risk of dying and in fact had the lowest risk of death of all groups.
Shockingly, the UW Madison study calculated that over 8 years, 182,000 people had died prematurely from the belief that stress is bad for you. (As McGonigal notes, that’s over 20,000 deaths per year, making the belief that stress is bad for you the 15th leading cause of death in America, ahead of skin cancer and HIV AIDS!)
Dr. McGonigal makes another key point about stress mitigation: stress actually makes you more social! Oxytocin is one of many stress hormones. Oxytocin has been nicknamed the “cuddle hormone” because it is released when you hug another person. Oxytocin is released under stress and not only motivates you to connect with others but also physically regenerates the heart. In this vein, across many studies of compassion, people who actively care for others show no stress-related risk of dying.
These findings are further supported by a Harvard research study that examined the physiological profile of subjects undergoing stress tests. Half of the subjects were told that stress could be good for them (e.g., your faster heartbeat will get more oxygen to brain), while the other half were not given any information.
In the Harvard study, for those who heard stress could be positive, their bodies actually responded differently to the stress test. Their cardiovascular stress profile was much healthier – their blood vessels stayed relaxed even though their heart beat faster. This study shows that when you change your mind about stress you can literally change your body’s response to stress.
In summary, how you think and how you act can change how you respond to stress. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be extremely effective in reducing stress levels. With stressed out mindfulness clients, I advocate for a combination of cognitive reframing and stress management strategies. I encourage them to see stress as a positive call to action and an opportunity to connect with others about what they’re going through. I also encourage them to take time for self-care and mindfulness every day to rejuvenate the mind and body and to restore the central nervous system to its rest and digest state.
How do you view stress? Do you have questions about how to reduce the effects of stress? Leave your questions in the comments.