I’ll be the first to admit that I have a history of not handling stress well.
A recent PubMed search on the connection between stress and proliferation of cancer didn’t help, as I found sufficient evidence to show that the two may be closely linked, and that is a disconcerting thought for a cancer survivor. Finding ways to relieve everyday stress has become one of my highest priorities. But would I be better served by focusing on stress as a positive force?
In her 2013 TED Talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers a new view of stress, not as a horrible experience, but instead as a state that primes your body for better dealing with hardships.
McGonigal points out that our attitude towards stress is critically important. A study from the University of Wisconsin (Keller et al., 2012, Health Psychol) demonstrated that people who experienced high levels of stress and were convinced that stress was harmful to their health were 43% (!) more likely to die during the eight-year study period. Note, these are correlational (not causational) findings, although it was striking how that belief predicted an earlier demise.
McGonigal describes research at Harvard (Jamieson et al., 2012, J Exp Psychol Gen) to discover whether changing someone’s attitude about stress can change their response to it. The study was designed to invoke anxiety in the subjects via a “social stress test”. But one group of participants was primed with information about how sensations associated with anxiety were actually beneficial for their performance: pounding heart = preparing the body for action; breathing faster = getting more oxygen to the brain for clearer thought.
Test subjects taught to reappraise their responses reacted differently to the stressors than might have been predicted. They felt energized, more confident and ready for the challenge. But what was even more surprising was that their physiological response was more positive, because they didn’t experience the tightening of blood vessels commonly associated with chronic stress and thereby with cardiovascular disease. Rather, the blood vessels stayed relaxed, as happens during periods of “joy and courage.”
This is a much healthier physiological reaction. As McGonigal puts it, “How you think about stress matters.” It may make the difference between a long life and an early death.
McGonigal goes on to describe another positive benefit of a healthy stress response: the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, which results in people seeking out social support during times of stress. Says McGonigal, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how to you feel, instead of bottling it up.” In addition, this results in an increase of empathy so that you are more likely to help someone else who’s experiencing stress.
Further, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory and protects the heart from potential negative effects of stress.
But most telling is a study (Poulin et al., 2013, Am J Public Health) that examined the connection between high levels of stress, risk of dying and amount of time that people spent supporting those around them. As might be expected given the above information,”people who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. …Caring created resilience.”
For me, McGonigal’s talk stood my belief about stress on its head. Can I learn to view the stress response differently? Yes, I believe I can. And what about social support? That is the path my life is taking: finding a more meaningful existence though supporting others.
This is a “win-win” of the highest degree.