It's Not Stress That Kills You: It's How You Handle It

Most wellness specialists agree that stress is on a par with smoking as far as health is concerned. You may even occasionally see stories about stressed-out workaholics who suddenly leave it all behind. But most people don’t want to live on the streets or off the grid.

Until recently, researchers have viewed stress in much the same way as Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Dr. Sapolsky says all primates release hormones, such as adrenaline and glucocorticoids, when threatened by predators. The likelihood of being eaten by a crocodile raises the heart rate and prepares the body to fight or flee.

In the modern world, we've been conditioned to react to psychosocial “crocodiles.” We get stressed at the fear of being passed over for a promotion. Or at the prospect of meeting a lover’s parents at Thanksgiving. We try not to think too much about what chronic stress does to our minds and bodies.

Stress is not to be ignored or despised. In a recent Ted talk, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal said she is embarrassed to realize that she characterized stress as “the enemy” to students and clients for years.

Treating stress as an enemy, she says, creates fear. Fear makes the blood vessels around the heart contract, which is not good. Dr. McGonigal points out that envisioning stress as a kind of partner that helps us prepare to meet a challenge can change the body’s response so profoundly that the blood vessels remain open, just as they do when we experience joy or courage. She suggests we respond to stress by first noticing we’re in its grip and then by telling ourselves, “This energy can help me rise to the challenge,” instead of, “Stress is killing me!”

Dr. McGonigal says it isn’t actually stress that kills people, anyway. It’s how we handle it. One study demonstrated that encouraging a positive view toward stress reduced the production of cortisol in people placed in stressful situations.

Another study, out of the University of Buffalo, did not surprise researchers this year when they noticed a 30% increase in people’s risk of dying for every major stressful experience, such as financial difficulties and family crises. But those same researchers were shocked to discover that people who respond to such crises with the desire to care for others don’t just reduce their risk of dying. Instead, their risk drops to 0%. Caring, says Dr. McGonigal, creates resilience, the ability to meet with life’s crises with creativity, hope, and connection

Dr. McGonigal adds that the stress hormone oxytocin can have a valuable role in helping people use stress in a positive way. This neurohormone primes people to seek out and link up with one another, to feel and express compassion and a caring attitude. When oxytocin is released into the body, we are motivated to connect and become, as she says, “fully human.” Oxytocin encourages us to surround ourselves with other people who care about us, rather than run off into isolation, licking our wounds and building walls around our hearts and minds. And even though it’s a hormone released during stress, oxytocin has another benefit: it protects the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress.

When we choose to view stress as helpful, she adds, we create the biology of courage. With courage, we can trust ourselves to handle life’s challenges. Dr. McGonigal suggests we can all use a more positive approach to retrain our thought processes. We can crank up our curiosity and ask, “What can I learn from this? How can I make my life richer and fuller by embracing this moment instead of trying to kick it to the curb?”

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