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How to Make Stress Your Friend

| June 17, 2014

by Jim Bruce

The Tuesday Reading for today is “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” a presentation Kelly McGonigal made at TED Global 2013.  (A transcript of the presentation can be found on the talk’s website. McGonigal is a Stanford University psychologist and a leader in the growing field of “science help” which helps us understand and implement the latest scientific findings in psychology, neuroscience, and medicine.

Dr. McGonigal’s recent focus has been on stress.  Her TED talk reports on an eight year study of 30,000 U.S. adults that began with the question “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?”  At some point, the study also asked “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”  And, the study team used public health records to learn who in the study population had died.

The results were more than just interesting:

•  People who said they experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying.  But, this was only true if you believed stress was harmful to your health.

•  People who experienced a lot of stress but did not believe stress was harmful had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study including people who had relatively little stress.

The study researchers estimated that over the eight years of the study, 182,000 Americans died prematurely not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.  If the estimate is correct, that makes believing that stress is bad for you is the 15th largest cause of death in the U.S., killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.

Science says that changing how you think about stress makes you healthier.  And, that’s because when you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.

When you’re stressed out your heart might be pounding, you might be breathing hard, and breaking into a sweat.  It’s easy to interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that you aren’t coping well with the pressure.

What if, instead you saw these as signs that your body was energized, preparing you to meet the challenge?  In a further study, this is what the participants were told.  And, those who learned to do so, were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident, and their physical response to stress changed.  Their cardiovascular profile changed:  It came to look like that for joy and courage.  McGonigal says “Over a lifetime of stressful experiences this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90’s.”

That’s what the neuroscience of stress reveals;  how you think about stress is what matters.  So, your goal shouldn’t be to rid yourself of stress, but to change how you think about stress.  And, when your body believes you, your stress response becomes healthier.  

In another study, two questions were again asked:  “How much stress have you experienced in the past year?” and “How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbors, people in your community?”  And, they used public records for the next five years to find out who died.

People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying.  On the other hand, for every major stressful life experience – e.g., financial difficulties or a family crisis – the risk of dying increase increased by 30%.

“Caring increased resilience.”

How you choose to think and act can transform how you experience stress.    

McGonigal closes her talk by saying:  “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.  And, when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.  …  You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges, and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”

Stop and think about your reaction to stress.  


I did.  .  .  .     jim