How stressed have you been this month? This week? Today?
Chances are pretty high that you’ve been at least moderately worried, overstretched, or burnt out recently. Even well before COVID, the American Psychological Association released their annual Stress in America report, which found that 75 percent of Americans have experienced at least one symptom of stress in the past month. These symptoms range from anxiousness to irritability to fatigue, and are caused by stressors including money, work, and the future of our nation — all really serious stuff.
Stress is a very real part of our lives, and it can look different for everybody, both in terms of its source and its manifestation. But research has shown that stress can have negative effects on the body, including inflammation, abnormal menstrual cycles and even heart disease. And beyond the physical effects, stress has also been shown to literally change your brain. According to a study done by the University of California, Berkeley, chronic stress can predispose the brain to mental illness.
All this research points to stress being a dire, yet expected aspect of life. But according to Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., an award-winning psychology instructor at Stanford University, there’s a way to make stress a positive part of your life.
Yes, you read that right.
But after a decade of telling people how stress can make you sick, she came across a study that completely changed her perspective. The study tracked 30,000 American adults over the course of eight years, asking participants about how much stress they had experienced in the last year and if they believed stress is harmful for their health. Then they used public death records to find out who had died (morbid, yes, but all in the name of science). What they found was remarkable: those who had experienced a great deal of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased chance of dying — but only among those who believed stress is harmful for their health.
The takeaway? You can literally change the way your body responds to stress by viewing it as helpful rather than harmful. Here are three ways to do this, according to McGonigal.
When your heart starts racing, instead of letting anxiety wash over you, think that your body is prepping you to rise to whatever challenge you’re facing. If your breath is shortening, remember that you’re helping oxygen get to your brain. The mind-body connection is strong, and simply rethinking how your body reacts to stress can truly change the way your brain processes it.
Oxytocin, the hormone that makes you crave close physical contact with loved ones, is actually a stress hormone. The body’s physical response to stress, in the form of oxytocin, is pushing you to talk to someone instead of bottling up your feelings. As McGonigal shares in her TED talk:
“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. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”
Another study McGonigal cites asked 1,000 adults the same question: ”How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” However, it asked a different follow up: “How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbors, people in your community?” What researchers found was that those who dedicated time to helping others showed a zero percent stress-related increase in dying. Caring for others can actually save your life — who knew?
Stressors are an inevitable part of life, but it’s entirely possible to change the way your brain processes it. By thinking of stress as helpful rather than harmful and following your body’s drive for human connection, you’ll prime yourself for a happier and longer life. With positive thinking and positive self-talk, you can turn a stressful situation into a productive force.
Kaitlin Bitting is a public relations pro and a certified health & wellness coach. She's passionate about helping people find the motivation to create lasting, positive change in their lives, whether personal or professional. Learn more at kaitlinbitting.com.
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