I recently watched a Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, called “How to Make Stress Your Friend.” I always assumed that stress could only be a negative experience, an enemy. Since modern day living is full of stressful events and people, I thought I was doomed to a mostly negative life. Yet, McGonigal’s talk brings up something entirely new for me. Something that will change my view on life and its struggles, for the the better.
In her talk, she brings up the fascinating implications of a study conducted on 30,000 adults in the United Stated over the course of eight years. The researchers asked two simple questions:
How much stress have you experienced in the last year?
Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?
After the study concluded, the investigators found out that those who encountered a lot of stress had a 43% higher risk of dying (Keller, Litzelman, Wisk, Maddox, Chen, Creswell, & Witt, 2011). However, this finding was only accurate for people who think stress is bad for you.
People who did not think stress was bad for their health, but still experienced a lot of it, had the lowest risk of dying for all people in the study. These folks had a lower chance of dying than people who only had little stress in their lives (McGonigal, 2013).
“People died not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you,” said McGonigal. “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? The science says ‘Yes.’ When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”
However, the relationship between stress levels and health might not be based on sheer positive thinking. Keller et al. (2011) gave a possible interpretation of their results. People who think stress is bad for you will automatically assume later that they actually do have negative health effects just based on their perceived notions, even if their health hasn’t declined based on the amount of stress in their lives.
The physical changes experienced during stress include increased heart and breathing rates. Breathing is how the body gets oxygen, so wouldn’t it be a “good” thing to be getting more oxygen before a class presentation or other “stressful” event? People can even get increased heart and breathing rates during sex, which generally is seen as an exciting, joyous experience.
“This is my body helping me rise to the challenge…when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress responses becomes healthier,” McGonigal claims.
Not only can people change how their view physical responses, optimism may help our health as well. I came across another study that followed students during their first semester of law school. Students that had a positive outlook gravitated towards having higher lymphocyte (cells that play a strong role in the immune system) counts in the body (Segerstrom, Taylor, Kemeny, & Fahey, 1998).
Research shows that people are not automatically doomed by stress. Your personal relationship to stress is what may dictate whether or not your experience the negative effects from it. Furthermore, there are steps that can be taken to change the response to stress in the moment.
First, acknowledge when stress is present in your life. Don’t force it away, yet. “I am feeling stressed right now because I have to submit this paper” or “Dealing with [insert situation here] is making me feel stressed out.”
Next, observe how your body is reacting. Are you hunched over? Are your shoulders tensing up towards your ears? Is your jaw tightening? What happens when you slowly try to bring your physical body back to neutral? I find that when I force something too quickly, it doesn’t always provide the long-term change I’m looking for. The attitude of “Relax! Relax now!” is stressful and fast-paced in itself. Think about it: if you are already stressed out, would being stressed and angry about your stress make it go away?
People deal with stress in numerous ways. Providing a “fix-all” for every individual is not a solution. I drink herbal tea to help me relax. Yet, there are a good amount of people that can’t stand the taste of earthy leaf water! Wouldn’t really help with relaxation, would it? Here is an excellent website about discovering what solutions work for you in the moment, based on personality, situation, and senses.
Do you see stress as a bad thing?
Do you think stress can be used as a tool?
How do you respond to stress?
Interested in watching the TED talk mentioned?
Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L., Maddox, T., Cheng, E., Creswell, P., & Witt, W. (2011). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684. Retrieved August 15, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374921/
McGonigal, K. (TED). (2013, September 4). How to Make Stress Your Friend (Video File). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcGyVTAoXEU
Segerstrom, S., Taylor, S., Kemeny, M., & Fahey, J. (1998). Optimism is associated with mood, coping and immune change in response to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(6), 1646-1655.