We often hear that stress is bad for you. It makes sense to a certain degree as stress can be terrible for your health and it can torment your state of mind. But new information regarding stress has helped us reconsider the notion that stress is the enemy. In this blog, I want to share with you a recent study that has changed the way that we at The Freedom Society view stress.
A recent study about stress tracked 30,000 American adults for eight years. In the study, participants were asked “how much stress have you experienced within the past year?” Participants were then asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then researchers used public death records to find out who died.
What the researchers found was somewhat surprising. People who experienced a lot of stress in the past year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But, that was only true for people who believed stress is harmful for their health.
People who experienced a lot of stress but didn’t believe stress was harmful for their health were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who experienced relatively little stress over the duration of the study.
Researchers estimated that over the eight year study, 182,000 American adults died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress was bad for them. Pretty crazy huh?
When you’re stressed, your heart might be pounding, you may be breathing faster, or you may be breaking into a sweat. Often we interpret this as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping well with the pressure. But what if we viewed them instead as your body getting energized and preparing you to meet this challenge?
Participants in a Harvard University study were instructed to rethink their stress response as helpful. That pounding heart, it’s preparing you for action. Breathing faster is no problem, it’s getting more oxygen to your brain.
Participants who viewed the stress response as helpful were less stressed, less anxious, and more confident. But the most important thing to note was 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 often associated with cardiovascular disease, it’s not healthy to be in this state all the time.
But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed and open. Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It is actually similar to what happens in moments of joy and courage. This one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50, and living well into your 90s.
This is what the new science and research about stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters. So rather than trying to get rid of your stress because you think it is bad for you, try to be better at thinking stress is good for you.
Next time you’re stressed and your heart is pounding, your breathing is faster, and you’re breaking out in sweats, remember this blog and think to yourself, “this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.” When you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.
For more on this topic be sure to check out the TED Talk below:
McGonigal, K. (2013, June). How to make stress your friend [Video]. TED Conferences.