The New Science of Stress – What if we change our approach to stress?
In Kelly McGonigal’s fascinating TED Talk ‘How to make stress your friend’ she suggests after years of discussing stress as the enemy it is time to rethink our approach to stress. A recent study in the US asked 30,000 adults over an 8-year period ‘how much stress they had experienced in the last year’ as well as whether they believed that stress is harmful for their health. They then looked to public health records to analyse deaths in the sample.
The research found that people who experienced a lot of stress in the last year had a 43% increased risk of dying – but this was only true if they believed that stress was harmful for their health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful had the lowest risk of dying out of anyone in study including those who had relatively little stress. In conclusion then over the 8-year period the research found that 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress itself but from the belief that stress is bad for you.
Thus, changing how you think about stress can make you healthier – by simply changing your thoughts you can change how your body works. Further research carried out by Jamieson, Nock and Mendes (2012) randomly assigned participants to either a reappraisal condition in which they were instructed to think about their physiological arousal during a stressful task as functional and adaptive, or to one of two control conditions: attention reorientation and no instructions. The results showed that relative to controls, participants instructed to reappraise their stress-induced arousal showed physiological and cognitive benefits. Participants who viewed the body’s response as preparing them for action for example viewing their pounding heart and faster breathing necessary for getting more oxygen to the brain to make them feel energized and prepared to meet the challenge were less stressed out, less anxious and more confident. In addition to this their physical response changed; during the typical response to stress the heart rate goes up and blood vessels constrict but those participants who viewed the response as helpful blood vessels stayed relax similar to the response when experiencing joy and courage. Over a lifetime this could be the difference between a heart attack at 50 and living into the 90s. How you think about stress matters.
One of the most underappreciated aspects of stress response is that stress makes you social. Oxytocin (also known as the cuddle hormone as it is released when you hug someone) acts both as a hormone and as a brain neurotransmitter; it fine tunes the brains social instincts and does things that can strengthen close relationships by increasing empathy and compassion. The pituitary gland pumps oxytocin out as part of the stress response; despite most people not realising it is a stress hormone, it is as much of the stress response as the adrenalin that makes your heart pound. When the body releases oxytocin it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is telling you to tell someone how you feel, it also allows you to notice when someone else is struggling so you can support each other. Oxytocin doesn’t just act on your brain it also acts on your body by protecting the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory and helps blood vessels stay relaxed during stress, helping the heart cells to regenerate and heal from any stress induced damage, strengthening your heart.
A study tracked 100 adults from 34- 93, asking how much stress they had experienced in the last year and how much time they had spent helping out neighbours, friends and people in community. Over 5 years the results showed that for every major stress experience (such as financial difficulties or family crisis’) the risk of dying increased by 30%. However, those people who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress related increase in dying; caring created resilience.
Kelly McGonigal concluded in her TED talk that the way we view stress should change, instead of wanting to get rid of stress we should now focus at getting better at stress. The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable, how you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you chose to view your stress response as helpful you create the biology of courage and when you chose to connect with others under stress you can create resilience. We need a whole new appreciation for stress – stress gives us access to our hearts, the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, the pounding physical heart works hard to give strength and energy. When you reappraise stress in this way you’re not just getting better at stress you’re making a profound statement you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and remembering that you don’t have to face them alone. Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. Go after what creates meaning in your life and trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.
Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 141(3), 417. doi:10.1037/a0025719
Kelly McGonigal, K., (2013) How to make stress your friend. TED Talk