We all live with stress, and sometimes it feels like stress is squishing the fun out of life. But what if there was a way to switch the tables on stress and make it work for you rather than
the other way around?
Well now you can! Below you will discover the key to mastering stress and making it your friend, not your enemy.
How you can turn the tables on stress
Stress, is the theft of time, sleep, joy, relaxation, and so much more.
But what if it wasn’t stress that was the issue? What if the problem is actually how we react to stress?
That’s what health psychologist and Stamford University lecturer, Kelly McGonigal PhD, argues in her book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It.
McGonigal bases her case on several large studies, one of which looked at 30,000 adults over eight years.
During this study, researchers asked participants who had been under serious stress, whether they viewed stress as a good or a bad thing.
Interestingly, when looking into the mortality rates of participants, they found that people who suffered a lot of stress had a 43% increased risk of dying. Amazingly, however, this risk only applied to people who believed stress was harmful to their health.
Those who were under a lot of stress but who did not believe that it was bad for their health actually had the lowest risk of dying than anyone in the study!
“Researchers estimated in the eight years they were tracking these people, 182,000 people died prematurely [in the United States], not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you,” she said.
“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress,” she added.
Changing your mind about stress
How you think about stress will determine how your body responds to stress, according to McGonigal. To demonstrate this point, she used the findings of a large Harvard University study.
During the study, participants were placed under considerable stress. Some were told to think that their response to stress, including their fast beating hearts, rapid breathing and their increased sweat, was helpful. That it was their body’s way of priming them to do the best that they could.
Those that viewed stress as helpful were found to be more confident, less stressed and less anxious. Not only that, but their hearts, while still beating fast, were healthier, there was less constriction of their blood vessels and they had a much healthier cardiovascular profile.
“(What happened to their hearts) actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage,” McGonigal said.
“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.
“This is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters,” she added.
According to McGonigal when you think of the physical symptoms of stress as “my body helping me rise to this challenge, your body believes you and your stress response becomes healthier”.
Benefits of stress
Oxytocin, a stress hormone (also known as the cuddle hormone) is pumped out when you are under stress. This fascinating little hormone, according to McGonigal actually makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family, it enhances empathy, and it makes you more willing to help out your nearest and dearest.
“When oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people that care about you,” she said.
But oxytocin is not just good for your brain and social circles, it is also really good for your heart.
“One of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress,” said McGonigal.
“It’s a natural anti-inflammatory, it also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress.
“Your heart has receptors for this hormone and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress induced damage.
“This stress hormone strengthens your heart. And all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support, so when you reach out to others when you’re under stress, either to seek support or to help someone you release more of this hormone, your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience.” she added.
Good for you, good for them
Stress, when viewed in the right manner, is not only good for you, it’s good for those around you.
Another study McGonigal cites is one that tracked 1,000 adults and found that while each life stress they suffered increased their risk of dying by 30%, those that spent time caring for others, had no stress-related increase in dying!
Harm is not inevitable
Summing up her philosophy on stress, McGonigal said “the harmful effects of stress are not inevitable”.
“Stress gives us access to our hearts, the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and your pounding physical heart which works so hard to give you strength and energy.
“And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at dealing with stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement.
You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone,” she added.
It’s a matter of opinion
Nobody is suggesting that having a massive workload, no sleep and a group of angry co-workers is going to give you glowing skin and a healthy heart, but some stress may be a good thing.
You just need to change how you think about it.
So next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, notice what’s happening to your body and take a minute to consider how this is a good thing. Embrace your racing heart, your sweaty palms and quicker breathing. It’s your body preparing you to do it’s very best. Call a friend and have a chat, reach out to a family member, help someone else, who knows, you may add years to your life!
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