Making Stress your Friend
Life is full of unwanted stress. There’s the anxiety of being late to a doctor’s appointment, the stress of trying to pay your bills and still eat, the jitters of public speaking, barking dogs, crying children, falling in love. Wait. Falling in love is stress?
According to Stanford Psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, the butterflies-in-the-stomach
feeling of romantic attraction is linked to the same stress hormone that causes us to feel our stomach clench in a bad traffic jam. McGonigal has been studying stress for years, and her findings suggest that we’ve been thinking about it in the wrong way. It turns out that it isn’t the stress itself that matters to our wellbeing. It’s whether we think stress is good or bad.
Historicallydoctors have associated stress with poor health. Emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease. And it is true that there are negative consequences to long periods of duress, but according to McGonigal, there is another side to the story. In her book, The Upside of Stress, she explains that a stressful situation can affect the body in the same way as joy. The only difference is in how the person perceives it.
People who view their stress as a source of positive energy are much healthier than people who view their stress negatively. Public speaking is a good example. Most people are a little nervous before talking to a large group or crowd. Their heart starts pounding, their throat feels dry, and they may even begin to shake. It’s not a pleasant experience unless the person says to herself, “Boy, I’m glad I am getting all this energy and focus from stress. My hormones are going to help me do well!
In a 2013 TED talk, McGonigalexplained,“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” Shecites a study that interviewed people about how much stress they had had in a certain time period. Then later they looked at death records. While part of what they predicted was true. People who suffered stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increase in their risk of dying. The study also discovered that the higher mortality rate was only true when peoplealso believed that stress is harmful for your health. In other words, just by changing your mindset and believing stress is good, you can live longer!
McGonigal also contends that stress makes people more social, which is another aspect of wellbeing.When people are social, including when they support each other during hard times, the body produces a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is often called the love hormone because it is a bonding chemical. It’s the warm, loving feeling people get from holding a sleeping baby or huggingsomeone. Humans have evolved to chemically produce this pleasant feeling as a way strengthen close relationships. Oxytocin feels good, so it is not typically thought of as a stress hormone, but it can counter the effects of bad stress.
Interestingly, oxytocin doesn’t only affect the brain. It also acts on thebody and can protect the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory that keeps blood vessels from constricting during stressful events. Oxytocinalso helps heart cells regenerate and heal after a disturbing event. To get these benefits of oxytocinpeople only need to connect with other humans in a positive way. An example is the tradition of having many people present at the birth of a child. People understand that the oxytocin released among the community will make these visitors more inclined to protect that child throughout her life.
Being aware that stress can have positive effects can do much to improve well-being, but McGonigal suggests that people might be even more deliberate about framing stress in a positive way. For example, she has a fear of flying, but she wanted to overcome it, so she tried to think ofgoing up in an airplane as a way to build courage. When she framed her attempt to fly as purposeful, she was able to reduce heranxiety and gain confidence.She believes that this is an example of a positive reframing of stress. When people are sensitive to what they can learn from a difficult situation, they learn, grow and have more empathy for others.
Caring for others can in turn offset any negative effects of hard times. People can hardly avoid stress in life. Illness, divorce, loss of a job, the death of a relative are all part of life. If people do not have a community of support, they are 30% more likely to die as a result of stressors. With that community of support, the likelihood drops to zero. While thinking about stress as a force for success, kindness, generosity and social well-being may seem a little unusual, butif people reframe their thinking, it is likely to make them emotionally and physically stronger.
(In your book, see pg 181 for more tips on writing a response. Note that it doesn’t have to be too complicated, but you should apply the information to yourself or society in some way.)