Stress. We all experience it but recent research has uncovered why it is beneficial to some of us and harmful to others. This research is so powerful that I believe sharing it will actually save lives.
In her TED talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal shares a study that reveals that our perception of stress (whether we think it is good or bad for us) has far more to do with our ability to cope and with whether stress impacts our health than anything else.
In the study, participants were asked to rank the stress in their lives as low, moderate, or high. Participants were then asked whether they felt that stress was harmful for their health. The researchers found that individuals who believed that stress was damaging had a 43 percent increased risk of dying – not because they actually had more stress in their life but simply because of their perception that stress was destructive.
In contrast, individuals who experienced a lot of stress but did not view it as harmful had a lower risk of dying even when compared with people with low stress but who perceived it as having a negative effect on their health and well-being. In fact, the researchers in this study concluded that over an eight year period, 182,000 people died prematurely – not from stress but purely from the belief that stress was bad for them.
So, how do you view stress? If you are a parent, have you observed how your children view stress? Do you typically make statements like, “I’m so stressed out!”? If so, you might want to consider changing your thought patterns around stress.
In another recent study, participants were asked to do exactly this and they had some remarkable results. Individuals in the study were informed that increased physiological responses (such as sweaty palms or a racing heart) during stressful situations were not harmful. In fact, they were told that it was their body’s way of gearing up to manage the stressful event successfully. The participants who learned how to reframe their thinking around stress exhibited improved cardiovascular functioning and better cognitive coping skills. Once again, this study demonstrates that it’s our interpretation of stress that affects how our body and mind respond to it.
The great news is that we have a choice in how we think about stress. We can choose to view stress as detrimental and try to rid our lives of it. Or, we can recognize that stress can actually be quite beneficial, literally helping us gear up to confront whatever challenge we are facing. And one thing that research has confirmed is that creating a life filled with purpose is far better for our health than trying to avoid anything that feels stressful. So with that in mind, here’s to choosing to use stress to our benefit and to living a healthy life rich with meaning.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”