- How you choose to think about stress completely changes your physical reaction to it
- Research proves that people who experience stress but don’t view it as harmful have the lowest risk of dying from heart disease
- Stress releases oxytocin, which enhances our empathy towards others.
We’ve spent decades believing that stress is the enemy. It negatively impacts our health and impedes our ability to work effectively. In short, stress is bad. It’s a killer and we need to ‘manage’ it, or even avoid it at all costs.
But Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of the best-selling book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, wants us to change our minds about stress. Not only is stress not the enemy, but if we transform the way we think about it, we could actually improve our happiness, health and effectiveness in the workplace.
The big idea: What you believe becomes your reality
McGonigal’s opinion on stress changed after she heard about a ground-breaking study in the US that tracked 30 000 adults for eight years. At the start of the study, participants were asked how much stress they had experienced in the last year, and if they believed stress was harmful to their health. The study then used public death records to track which participants had died.
People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% higher chance of dying, confirming everything we’ve always believed about stress. Except for one small but significant detail: This was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful.
People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful to their health were no more likely to die than people with absolutely no stress in their lives. In fact, the focus group who had experienced stress but didn’t view it as harmful had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study.
What’s in it for you: Make stress your silver bullet
McGonigal then found other studies that backed her assertion that changing your mind about stress can change your body’s response to it. In one Harvard study, participants were placed in a stressful situation but told that the stress response was good and would help them cope with the situation.
In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict, which is a factor in cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. But what happens if you believe that all the physical signs of stress — including a heightened heart rate — are helping you to stay focused and perform at your peak?
According to the study, your blood vessels stay relaxed. Not only are you not putting your heart at risk, but your cardiovascular profile looks more like what happens in moments of joy and courage. You’re feeding your heart and boosting your health, which can mean the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at 50 or living well into your 90s.
Stress also releases oxytocin, which fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It enhances empathy and protects your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress.
Make it Happen
3 Ways to make stress work for you from today:
- Change your mindset. By changing the way you think about stress, you can harness its power and look after your health.
- Feed your heart. The next time you experience stress and you break out into a sweat while your heart starts pounding and your breathing quickens, embrace it. Your blood vessels will remain relaxed while your oxytocin levels spike.
- Fall in love with stress. The physical results of stress are all signs that your body is energised and you’re ready to take on any challenge, mentally and physically.