Hope you’re all doing well!
Stress needs know no introduction. We have all been through some sort of a major stressful episode in our lives and many of us face some form of stress on a daily basis. We have also heard of how dangerous stress can be for both our physical and mental health and well-being.
However, Stanford University lecturer and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. argues that it is not the actual stress that is dangerous for us and can make us sick rather, it is how we think about and perceive stress that can make it harmful for us.
She cites a study conducted in 2012. This study tracked 30,000 Americans for a total of eight years. Towards the end of each year the participants were asked two questions. First they were asked: “How much stress have you experienced in the past year? Then they were asked: “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”. Each year researchers used public death records to find out how many of these people died that year.
As we might expect the people who reported that they experienced a lot of stress in the last year had a 43 percent increased risk of death.
However, this increased risk of death was only true for the people who also believed that stress was harmful for their health.
The people who experienced a lot of stress but did not view this stress as being harmful were not more likely to die. These people actually had the lowest rate of death compared to everyone else in the study (even compared to those who had only a little bit of stress but viewed stress as being harmful).
The researchers of this study generalized the results of this study to the overall American population and they estimated that each year nearly 20,000 people die not from the actual stress but the belief that stress is harmful for them.
The major takeaway from this research is that changing how we think about stress can make us healthier and actually improve our stress response.
When we are going through a stressful episode we experience certain physiological changes such as a faster heart rate, faster breathing and sweating. Normally, we interpret these physical changes as a sign of weakness and thus we may start getting anxiety.
Now that we are equipped with this new knowledge, the next time we are experiencing a stressful episode and we are experiencing our heart pounding or any other signs of stress we should practice thinking of these signs as helping energize our body and helping us to face the challenge that we are about to face.
In fact, a study done by Harvard University demonstrates that thinking differently about our stress response really does help us deal with the stress in a healthier manner. In this study participants were taught to view their stress response as being helpful and not dangerous. Then when the experiment started they were all placed in a stressful environment (they had to perform various challenging tasks such as arithmetic in front a number of “judges”). The results of the experiment showed that those who viewed their stress response as being helpful were less anxious, less stressed out, and more confident.
Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of this Harvard study was that those who viewed stress in a positive manner had their physical stress response actually change. Under normal stressful conditions when our hearts are pounding, our blood vessels really tighten up and constrict themselves and over the course of a lifetime this type of stress reaction can lead to heart disease. Those with a positive attitude about stress still had a pounding heart however, their blood vessels were much more relaxed and this is a much healthier state to be in.
Without a doubt, long-term stress or a lifetime of stress, can cause health complications however, this research gives us hope that we can prevent some of the detrimental effects of stress by simply changing the way we think about stress.