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How to make stress your friend

I highly recommend taking the 15 minutes needed to watch this TED talk by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

The gist of the talk is this: Stress, in and of itself, is not harmful to your health. What is harmful is the belief that stress is harmful to your health. According to McGonigal, properly understood, stress can be a source of empowerment, can exert a protective effect on our hearts and bodies, and can motivate us to make key social connections with others which make us physically and emotionally resilient.

The problem is stress about stress

In the past 15-20 years the term “stress” has been a huge part of the popular discourse. We are told that stress kills; that diseases as diverse as heart attacks, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease are caused by stress; and that chronic stress has as much of an adverse impact on our wellbeing as smoking.

But here’s the thing: a lot of the stress in our lives cannot be avoided. Unless we want to quit our jobs, leave our families, and walk away from our obligations to live off grid in the wilderness, stress is part of our modern lives. I don’t know about you, but one of the most stressful things in my life is reflecting on how stressed I am and worrying about the impact that my stress might be having on my health. According to recent research, my fear of the impact of stress on my health is what is harming me, not the stress itself. Isn’t that ironic?

Chinese medicine has been saying this all along

As is usually the case, this “recent discovery” dovetails beautifully with what Chinese medicine has been saying for thousands of years. According to ancient Chinese medical texts, without the energy generated by feelings and emotions the body would die. Strong emotions stimulate hormonal changes, enhance the function of organs, and energize the specific parts of the body needed to deal with urgent situations. For example, anger stimulates the energy that is needed for confrontation and fear mobilizes the body to flee from danger.

When we are able to respond proactively and effectively to these situations, distressing emotions are generally transformed to a sense of empowerment, enhanced self-confidence, and satisfaction (for example when we use our anger to diplomatically confront a situation or when our fear motivates us to remove ourselves from a situation that is physically or emotionally dangerous).

A problem arises, however, when the situation that stimulates strong emotions does not resolve and/or we ignore or repress our strong emotions in an effort to remain “calm, cool, and collected” at all times. This eventually results in other distressing emotions, such as when unresolved anger evolves into secondary but more insidious emotions such as resentment, hostility, bitterness, guilt, and depression. This is what occurs when we are afraid of stress and that fear motivates us to repress or deny our feelings when we are stressed.

The key is to change your beliefs about stress

According to McGonigal, the key to a healthy response to stress is the self-talk that takes place in our minds when we are stressed. Rather than taking a pounding heart, sweating palms, or butterflies in our stomach as evidence that we are stressed and are not coping well, McGonigal says that we need to view these physiological responses as evidence that our body is doing a masterful job of rising to the challenge of our circumstances. Your pounding heart is preparing you for action. Your rapid breathing is increasing the oxygen level in your brain and muscles. Together, these responses helpful and serve to energize the body to respond proactively to stress.

That simple change in our perception can make all the difference. In a recent study, individuals who were the most high stressed but who did not hold the belief that stress has an adverse effect on their health were actually significantly less likely to die prematurely than individuals who had the least stress in their lives but held the belief that stress is harmful. In another study, participants who had been taught to view stress as helpful did not experience the constriction of the blood vessels of the heart when they were under acute stress. Instead, their coronary vessels remained open in a fashion that is characteristic of joy.

Stress and the cuddle hormone

Another fascinating point that McGonigal makes is that stress serves the extremely important function of motivating us to make social connections with others. This occurs by way of a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone is secreted by the brain when we are stressed and it causes us to desire connection with others — it motivates us to seek physical contact like touching and hugging, and it makes us more attuned to the needs and feelings of those close to us. Oxytocin is the hormone of bonding and connection and it fine tunes our social instincts.

One thing that is very interesting about oxytocin is that it is protective of the heart — it actually serves to make the heart resistant to the adverse effects of stress, it helps to keep the blood vessels of the heart open when we are stressed, and it causes the heart to regenerate and repair cells that have been damaged by stress. All of these effects are strengthened when we reach out and make connections to others, either by seeking support or providing support. What this tells us is that social connection is one of our body’s build-in mechanisms for handling stress.