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, author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.
How much stress have you experienced in the last year? Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?
People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.
People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.
Now the researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths,182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.
Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier?
And here the science says yes. When you change your mind about stress,you can change your body’s response to stress.
Now I said I have over a decade of demonizing stress to redeem myself from, so we are going to do one more intervention. I want to tell you about one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the stress response, and the idea is this: Stress makes you social.
Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about. But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up.Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
This stress hormone strengthens your heart. And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress.
Caring creates resilience
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.
For every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family crisis, that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. But — and I hope you are expecting a “but” by now — but that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying.Zero. Caring created resilience.