In June of last year, Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal spoke at the TED Global conference. Her topic was “How to make stress your friend,” and in it she cited numerous studies showing that how our bodies respond to stress – and quite literally whether stress will kill us or not – has more to do with how we think and act in stressful situations than with the amount of stress we encounter.
When we view stress as harmful to our health, it is: over an eight-year period, 43% of people who viewed stress as bad for them and reported having high stress in their lives died. On the other hand, those people who had high stress in their lives but did not view it as harmful had the lowest death rates of any group in the study, including those who had relatively low levels of stress.
It turns out that what’s actually bad for us is how we view stress, not how much stress we have.
Here are three ways to shift your perspective on stress.
1. Consider the possibility that the symptoms we think of as stress-related (such as a pounding heart and rapid breathing) are actually ways in which your body is preparing to do its best for you. For instance, extra oxygen is being delivered to your brain so you can think and act more clearly and quickly. When we do this, studies show that our physical response is what we normally see when people are feeling courage and joy, instead of the unhealthy reactions associated with stress.
2. Stress literally reminds us that we need people – we need help from others. It causes the body to release the hormone oxytocin, nicknamed the “cuddle hormone” because it’s also released when we hug someone. What this means is that we have a physical response to stress that causes us to want to seek out other people and get support. Furthermore, as McGonigal reports, oxytocin is an anti-inflammatory, acting to protect our bodies from the results of stress. In effect, it’s how the body self-medicates in times of stress, strengthening our emotional heart as well as our physical heart.
3. Studies also show that those who spend time caring for others have no – as in zero – increased risk of dying from stress. The group who experienced stress but weren’t supporting others in their lives? They had a 30% increased chance of dying for every high-stress event they experienced. The experience of “caring for” someone else can take many forms and be as simple as visiting a friend who’s going through a difficult time.
As McGonigal said in her closing remarks, “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.”
Additional resources: Stanford University psychology professor Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk is available here: https://www.ted.com/talks/
Stress is a Gift video training program ()