Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.
When stressed, your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, and you’ll break out into a sweat. Normally we’d view these as signs that you’re not coping well, but people could also be taught that your body is preparing for action. By pumping more blood and breathing more you are preparing for something difficult, and ready to take on any challenge.
The harmful part of stress is a restriction of blood vessels, which is associated with cardiovascular disease. When people learn to see stress as a positive, the blood vessels do not constrict. The body response looks more like it is full of joy.
The next time you are stressed, think about it as your body preparing you for the challenge.
Stress makes you social. Octytocin is a neural hormone that primes you to strengthen relationships, and help your friends. It is also known as ‘the cuddle hormone’. But Oxytocin is also released as a stress response – to make you want to tell someone you are struggling. Oxytocin is also received in the heart, to strengthen, heal and protect it from the effects of stress. As you release more of this hormone by being stressed or helping others, you increase your stress resilience.
Another study looked at how stressed people were, how much time they had spent helping family / friends / their community, and correlated with public death records. For the general respondants, each major stressful crisis increased the risk of dying by 30%. However, people who spent time caring for others had no increase in risk of death due to stress.
The results of stress are changed by your mindset. When you think of stress as a benefit it acts that way. When you help others, you build resilience to stress.
When given a choice between a stressful job and one that is less stressful, Kelly recommends that you follow the one that gives you the most meaning, and trust yourself to handle the stress that results.