For many years I have been aware of the way that stress can be harmful to your health. Then one day, a few years ago I saw Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk, How to make stress your friend. It has completely changed the way I think about and talk about stress.

This is a summary of what I discovered from that TED talk, something I have been teaching my clients ever since!

Embracing the stress response

Most of us have learned to see the signs of a stress response as a bad thing, our brain naturally always scanning for threats which historically was a good thing (as there were so many threats). It is not as helpful now though if every time we have the breathing change, heart rate increase and pounding heart we perceive it as a negative thing.

Instead; what if you viewed these signs as your body getting energised, preparing for a challenge.

That is precisely what participants were told in a study conducted at Harvard University. Before they went through the social stress test, they were taught to reframe their stress response as helpful. That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you’re breathing faster, that’s great because it’s getting more oxygen to your brain. Ultimately, the participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were less stressed out, less anxious and more confident. One of the most interesting things was actually how their physical stress response changed.

In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict, this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is can be associated with cardiovascular disease. Being in this state all the time is not healthy. The interesting thing in the study was that the participants who viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Even though their heart was still pounding; it was a much healthier cardiovascular profile.

Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this single biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and aiming to get a letter from the Queen.

We now know that HOW you think about stress matters! It matters a whole lot! It is not about getting rid of stress, as stress is just part of life. It is about doing stress better!

Stress makes you social – the oxytocin connection

Oxytocin is often referred to as the cuddle hormone since it is the hormone you release during a hug. It is also very much involved in childbirth and breast feeding.

Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone. It fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen your close relationships. Oxytocin actually makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy and makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about.

It’s also a stress hormone; your pituitary gland releases it as part of the body’s stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. When oxytocin is released during the stress response, it motivates you to seek support and notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. This response is often referred to as tend and befriend and more common in women.

Oxytocin acts on the body, not just the brain; one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress.  Your heart actually  has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart.

This is one of the many reasons why having healthy relationships and connections to friends and your community is so powerful for good health.

Importance of community

Another study tracked about 1,000 adults in the United States, and they ranged in age from 34 to 93, and they started the study by asking, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbours, people in your community?” And then they used public records for the next five years to find out who died.

They found that for every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family  crisis, that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. But that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in  dying. Zero. Caring created resilience!

If you believe stress will make you sick, you are right!

Another study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years, and they started by asking people, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” And then they used public death records to find out who died.

People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.

People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress

Now the researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.

That is over 20,000 deaths a year. Now, if that estimate is correct, that would make believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death in the United States last year, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.

I hope by now you know that the harmful effects of stress are not inevitable. How you think can and does transform your experience of stress. When you choose to ask for help and connect with others, you create resilience, not just for you but for the whole community.

At Informed Health we help individuals with managing stress and becoming more resilient in one on one consultations and in group programs such as our Stress Less program.

I invite you to watch Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk below. Due to the nature of this information (reporting results of studies), some of this blog post is in my words but much of it is a direct transcript/or very close to a direct transcript of Kelly’s words in the TED Talk.

References:

TED Talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend, Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others. TEDGlobal 2013 | June 2013

Link to TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend

Abiola Keller et al., “Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality”, Health Psychology, September 2012

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22201278/

 

Fiona Kane is a Nutritional Medicine Practitioner, Mind Body Eating Coach, Holistic Counsellor, Professional Speaker and writer on Health and Nutrition and the founder of Informed Health.