We’ve been told for years that a little stress is healthy but that too much stress can have devastating effects on our health.
According to stress expert Jay Winner, MD, director of the Stress Management Program for Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, California, says that “Stress doesn’t only make us feel awful emotionally….It can also exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of.”
Those are some pretty damning words about stress. But what if the experts are wrong? What if it isn’t stress itself, but how you think about the stress that’s the problem? In fact, what if how you think about stress can save your life?
Stress has been named as contributing to some of our major health problems, including heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, headache, depression and anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, accelerated aging, and premature death. If this new way of looking at stress is true, then we may be able to have a significant impact on the occurrence of these health challenges.
Is Stress Our Friend?
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who also authored The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You, and How To Get Good At It, explained in a recent Ted Talk how she came to realize that all the teaching she had been doing about the harmful effects of stress had “turned stress into the enemy.” Since then, she has changed her mind about stress and hopes she can get others to look at it and think about it differently as well.
Read more: 5 Tips for Natural Stress Management
The way she wants us to think about stress is as a friend, as something that can enhance our health rather than harm it. If we can do that, she says, then we have an opportunity to improve our quality of life.
Research supports this idea, yet most people don’t know about it. One of the studies tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years and questioned them about the stress in their lives and whether they believed stress was harmful to their health. When the investigators looked at death records for these individuals, they discovered that:
- Those who said they had experienced a lot of stress during the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. However, this was true only for those who believed stress is detrimental for your health.
- Individuals who had experienced a great deal of stress but did not believe stress was harmful had the lowest risk of dying of any of the participants in the study, even those who reported experiencing only a little stress.
- The researchers proposed that the 182,000 people who died during the eight-year study died prematurely not from stress, but because they believed stress was harmful to their health.
- If we look at this figure in a different way, approximately 22,700 people die each year from a belief in the power of stress to harm their health, which is more people than those who die of HIV/AIDS, homicide, and skin cancer per year in the United States.
In other words, stress may be killing us, but only because we believe it will. If we change how we think about stress, we might be able to change how our body responds to it and thus save our life. Again, there is research to support this idea.
What Happens When We Change How We Think About Stress?
At Harvard, volunteers were exposed to stressful situations, including giving an impromptu speech in front of a panel of very critical evaluators while also under bright lights; and counting backward from a high number in increments of seven while being told repeatedly they were going too slow and that they were no good.
Normal responses to such stressful situations include a rapidly beating heart, sweating, and faster breathing. We’ve been taught that these are signs of anxiety and have a negative connotation. However, the subjects in the study were told before they underwent the stressful situation that they should view their stress responses as helpful and healthy. For example, breathing faster was sending more critical oxygen to the brain and their pounding heart was readying them for action.
When the volunteers thought this way about their stressful situations, the researchers discovered that they were less anxious, less stressed, more confident, and, most surprising of all, that their blood vessels did not constrict.
During a typical stress response, the blood vessels narrow as the heart beats faster, a scenario associated with a heart attack or cardiovascular disease. However, in this study, the volunteers who viewed their stressful situation as helpful still had the pounding heart but not the constricted blood vessels.
According to McGonigal, “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.”
But Wait; There’s More
Another aspect of the stress response is oxytocin, a stress hormone that is also referred to as the love or cuddle hormone because your body releases it when you hug or touch someone. But it also has another role: it alters the brain so you feel more social, empathetic, and caring. Therefore, when your body releases oxytocin during a stressful situation, the hormone prompts you to seek others for support and an opportunity to share your feelings. You want a hug.
While oxytocin is telling you to share your feelings, it also is acting as an anti-inflammatory and preventing constriction of your blood vessels. At the same time, it’s facilitating the regeneration of heart cells that have been damaged by stress.
So stress is really a healthful situation if we choose to look at it that way, and because of oxytocin. The healthy boost from the hormone can be enhanced during stressful situations if we either help others or seek help ourselves since those actions trigger the release of more oxytocin. That healthy boost includes reducing your risk of dying.
Yes, there’s a study for that. Researchers tracked 846 US adults and asked them about the amount of stress they had experienced during the previous year and how much time they had spent helping other people. The investigators then checked public death records for the next five years and found that:
Major stressful situations (e.g., losing a job, financial problems) increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. However, individuals who had spent time caring for others demonstrated no stress-related risk of dying. Caring (and oxytocin) had protected them from the harmful effects of stress.
Has this explanation shed a whole new meaning to be “stressed out”? Are you ready to look at stress as your friend? If so, it could save your life.