Your thoughts start racing. Your jaw clenches. An invisible weight settles onto your chest. We’ve all experienced the signs of stress. Recent research by Korn Ferry found that workplace stress has risen nearly 20% in three decades. But, is that good, or bad? Until now, we’ve associated stress as something negative that we must overcome in order to think clearly and produce results. But Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal is mounting evidence that what we think we know about stress is backward.
Her 2013 talk at TED Global is one of the 20 most popular TED talks of all time. Here are some of her more surprising findings:
Stress is not the enemy. Your beliefs about stress is the enemy.
The University of Wisconsin studied 30,000 adults in the U.S. for eight years. They started by asking participants, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They followed up by asking, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” The bad news: people who experienced a lot of stress in the past year had a 43% risk of dying. But, that was only true for the participants who believed that stress is harmful for their health. In fact, people who experienced a lot of stress, but did not view stress as harmful, actually had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.
There’s more. 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. That’s more than 20,000 death a year. “If that estimate is correct,” says McGonigal, “that would make believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death [in 2012] killing more than skin cancer, HIV Aids, and homicide.”
When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.
Think about the last time you felt stressed. Did you interpret the physiological signs of stress – increased heart rate, faster breathing, sweaty palms – as anxiety or evidence that you weren’t coping well with pressure? “What if,” McGonigal suggests, “you understood that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?” That’s what participants were told in a 2011 Harvard University study. Before going through a social stress test, the group was told that the body’s stress response was helpful. That pounding heart? Your body is preparing you for action. Faster breathing? No problem. You’re getting more oxygen to the brain.
In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict. This is one of the reasons that chronic stress is associated with cardiovascular disease. But when participants in the Harvard study were told to view their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed even though their heart was pounding. It turns out at that the relaxation of the blood vessels during stress is the same physiological response to joy and courage.
Believing that your body is helping you think clearly and prepare you for action can mean the difference between a stressed-induced heart attack in your 50’s and living well into your 90’s. Want to learn more? Check out McGonigal’s book, “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good At It.” It may just save your life.
Question: Do you know that some people feel stress the same way they do joy? Want to know how they do it?
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