“Stress happens when your mind resists what is…. The only problem in your life is your mind’s resistance to life as it unfolds.” – Dan Millman
Twenty-first century life is, by any stretch of the imagination, stressful. We are plugged in, tuned on, accessible, online, and in a constant state of hypervigilance. If we choose to we can be instantly made aware of any catastrophe occurring anyplace on the planet anytime we want. We have our own personal stress, and we gladly take on the stressors of the rest of the world. Most of us believe that stress is dangerous and potentially deadly. Yet we can’t bear the thought of missing out on anything. We believe that stress can kill, but we gravitate to it anyway.
Approximately 10 years ago researchers set out to create a longitudinal study to examine whether or not stress was dangerous to us. Initially the answer appeared so obvious as to make the study meaningless, but the study was done anyway. The study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States over an eight year period.People were asked the question, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful to your health?” Over the next eight years they tracked how many of the 30,000 adults died. The findings were that of the people who experienced large amounts of stress, there was a 43% increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who believed that stress was harmful. 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 this study, including people who had virtually no stress at all. Researchers concluded that those who die of stress related problems are susceptible because they believe that stress is bad for you. In other words, it is the belief that stress is bad that makes it deadly. It is estimated that over 20,000 Americans die each year of stress related illnesses. Research indicates that this number would be dramatically lower if Americans simply were less stressed about being stressed.
Kelly McGonigal, a PhD researcher from Stanford University, was intrigued by this study’s findings. She began to wonder whether or not changing the way you think about stress can make you healthier. She says that scientific research says it can. “When you can change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress,” she states. “Stress makes your heart pound, your breathing faster, you break out into a sweat. Normally, we interpret these changes as anxiety or signs that we are not coping very well with the pressure. But what if you viewed them as your body preparing itself for the challenge?,” she asked.
McGonigal cites a follow-up study conducted at Harvard University in which participants who were told that the physiological signs of stress prepared them to cope better became less anxious and more confident in stressful situations. They viewed their stress response as helpful. As a result heart and blood vessels responded to stress in the same manner that one would typically respond in times of intense joy. “Over the course of a lifetime responding to stress in this manner can make the difference between dying of a stress induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s,” she says. “And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.” We should not try to eliminate stress rather we should change the way we view it. “This is my body’s response helping me rise to the challenge,” is a far more productive way to cope.
Most people are aware of the role played by the hormone adrenaline in the human stress response. Another major hormonal factor is the role played by oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone normally associated with affection. It is nicknamed the “hug hormone” because it primes us for close relationships and human contact. Ironically, oxytocin is also a stress hormone and is as much a part of the stress response is adrenaline. It pushes you to seek help from other caring people during times of stress. It prompts you to connect to others as a defense against stress and allows you to notice when others are stressed as well. It is a naturally occurring antidote to adrenaline. It is also a natural anti-inflammatory and helps improve heart functioning. McGonigal says, “I find this amazing that your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”
The conclusion to these studies is that while stress does increase the risk of premature death, there is a lot of hope. You can significantly lower your risk of stress related illness and death by maintaining caring human connections with significant others. Caring creates resilience. The combination of consciously choosing to think differently about stress, that is, changing what stress means to us is the critical element. Reframing the physiological response as preparation, and reaching out to others to give and receive comfort makes all the difference. McGonigal concludes that, “The compassionate heart that finds joy in meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working 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 stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges, and your remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”
Next time you’re struggling with major life stressors think about what’s really going on. Find meaning and reconsider your body’s resiliency. Realize that your body is preparing you for this struggle, reach out to others for this strength and support, and accept your body’s wisdom.
P.S. Subscribe to this blog, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.