In a June 2013 Ted talk, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D, a health psychologist at Stanford University, told her listeners that stress is not the health problem we've believed it to be for more than 30 years. Rather, the danger lies in our perception that stress is harmful to our health. McGonigal's presentation, "How to Make Stress Your Friend," highlights three studies that show it's not stress that's the problem, but our anxiety over stress that's the killer.
The first study comes out of the University of Wisconsin. Researchers followed 30,000 adult Americans for 8 years. What the researchers found was fascinating. While people who had a lot of stress had a 43% higher risk of dying, this was true only if they believed that stress was detrimental to their heath. Those adults who had a lot of stress and didn't see stress as harmful did not have a higher risk of dying! As it turns out, it's anxiety over stress, not stress itself, that kills 20,000 Americans every year.
What happens when we see stress as helpful?
A Harvard study of psychosocial stressors found that when participants viewed stress as something that could help them cope with life, their physical response to the situation actually changed. Rather than their blood vessels constricting, as might be expected during times of stress, those participants who were told that the stressor was instead helping them had full, round, and relaxed blood vessels rather than constricted ones. Their physical response looked similar to what respondents would be expected to experience during moments of joy.
The stress hormone that actually makes you feel good
McGonigal says that when oxytocin is released as part of a stress response, it motivates us to seek support from others."Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress reliance — and that mechanism is human connection." McGonigal suggests when we look for social support in times of stress those connections boost our oxytocin levels.
Helping and serving others mitigates our risk of stress and death
While many faiths have long touted the spiritual benefit of helping others, it turns out that there's a physical benefit as well. A third study from the University of Buffalo that followed about 1,000 Americans found that stressful life experiences increased the risk of death by 30 percent — except in those cases where people spent time caring for others. Those folks had a 0 percent increase in their risk of death during stressful life experiences.
McGonigal concludes by advising: "Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. Go after what creates meaning in your life, and then trust yourself to manage the stress that follows."
Readjusting your thinking about stress can literally save your life. When you find yourself under stress, think about how those events can motivate you to face life's challenges. Remember to connect with others rather than hibernating solo, and don't forget that helping others really does get your mind off of your own problems.