A New View of Stress That Can Save Your Life

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.

This is a novel and intelligent way of looking at something that, unfettered, could otherwise harm us. Why not turn it into a positive instead?

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.”

What if effectively dealing with stress is as simple as changing the way you view it?

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.

Cartwheeling Down the Hall

Although I don’t do so often, I can still knock out a proper cartwheel.

Since it’s a “wheel”, you only need a lot of space moving forward, not width-wise, so presumably, it should be possible to cartwheel down a hallway. After all, gymnasts manage this on a balance bean only a few inches wide.

But that’s not what happens to me. Even when there’s physically an ample amount of space for gymnastic endeavors, psychologically there is a perceived narrowness.

That lack of space exists only inside my head, but it’s powerful enough to hinder even an attempt at a cartwheel in our apartment.

I imagine limbs thwacking against walls coupled with lots of pain and regret.

This post, of course, is not about cartwheels. It’s that I often approach life events in a similar way. There is a narrowness of view and fear of pain, and these limitations take up real estate inside my head. While in reality, there’s enough space for emotions to express themselves and enough time to work out any arisen problems, those imagined walls confine my actions.

Yeah, there are moves that I will *not* be able to manage no matter what.

Were I to close my eyes and trust my abilities, cartwheeling through the little hallway from my galley kitchen to our dining area would be no big deal.

But faith in myself has been eroded away and my sight is influenced by not only things that came before but also the discomfort of what may come in the future.

Breaking through these barriers takes work, and while I’m up for it, it is a process. The trick, of course, is to generate enough confidence to cartwheel down that hallway while I still remember how.