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Doing stress well

Kelly McGonigal

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A psychologist specializing in applying scientific findings to health and happiness, McGonigal discusses how the impact of stress depends on how you perceive it. Changing your mind about this, she says, changes how your body responds. So rather than help get rid of stress, McGonigal wants to help you get better at stress by understanding that challenges involving things we care about contribute to leading meaningful lives. Presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting.

I have a confession to make. My confession is this: I’m a health psychologist. My mission in life is to help people become happier and healthier. But I fear that something I spent years teaching has done more harm than good. And it has to do with stress.

For years, I told people that stress makes you sick. That it increases your risk of everything from the common cold to heart disease. I described stress as the enemy of health. But I’ve changed my mind about stress, and today, I want to change yours.

Let me start with the study that made me rethink my whole approach to stress. This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years. They asked people how much stress they had in their lives. They also asked them if they believed that stress was harmful for their health. And they used public records over the next eight years to find out who died. The bad news first—high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent.

But here’s the thing. That was only true for people who believed that stress was bad for their health. People who reported high levels of stress, but did not view their stress as harmful, were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even compared to people who experienced very little stress.

The researchers estimated that over the eight-year period that they tracked people, 182,000 Americans died prematurely not because of stress alone but because they believed stress could make them sick. That’s over 20,000 deaths a year.

If that were right, that would make believing stress is bad for you the 15th leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDs, and homicide. So you can see why this study made me pause. Here I was, spending all this time convincing people that stress is bad for your health.

This study got me wondering, Is stress really the enemy? And can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? I’ve spent the last six years scouring the scientific literature trying to find the answer, and it turns out that yes, how you think about stress matters. And when you change your mind about stress, you change how stress affects your body. Scientists call this the “stress mindset effect.”

Here you see two different ways of thinking about stress. [visual] Which best describes the way you think about stress? Do you believe that stress should be avoided and that its effects are always harmful? Or do you accept stress and believe it can help you reach your goals?

Studies show that people who believe stress is harmful and should be avoided are more likely to experience the negative outcomes we associate with stress, such as back pain, headaches, depression, burnout, and even divorce. In contrast, people who hold a more positive view of stress are healthier, happier, more productive, and satisfied at work. They’re less likely to get sick or burned out and more likely to thrive, even in the midst of highly stressful circumstances.

More importantly, scientists have found that when people learn about stress mindsets, and they choose to take a more positive view of stress, they become happier, healthier, and more successful.

So my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I don’t want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress. And to do so, I’m going to share with you some insights from the new science of stress that reveal exactly how you can use the stress mindset effect to your advantage.

Let’s start with a thought experiment. I want you to imagine that you are a participant in a study designed to stress you out. It’s called the Social Stress Test. You come into the lab and are told that you’re going to have to give an impromptu five-minute speech on your personal weaknesses, to be evaluated by a panel of experts sitting right in front of you. To make sure you feel the pressure, there’s a video camera and bright lights. As you give your talk, the evaluators have been trained to give you discouraging, nonverbal feedback, such as furrowed brow, crossed arms, frowning, disappointed sigh. No matter how well you’re doing, these evaluators will make you feel like you are blowing it.

Now, if this were really happening to you, your heart might be pounding. You might be breathing faster or breaking out into a sweat. Usually, we interpret these physical reactions as a sign that we aren’t coping very well with the pressure. But what if you viewed them as signs that your body was energized? What if you believed that your own stress response could help you perform better under pressure? That’s exactly what participants were told in a study conducted at Harvard University.

Before they gave their speech, they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful. That pounding heart? It’s preparing you for action. Breathing faster? The extra oxygen will give your brain more energy. Participants who learned to view their stress response as helpful ended up feeling more confident, and they gave better speeches. But the most fascinating finding to me was how their physical stress response changed.

A typical stress response increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Your blood vessels constrict. This is one reason chronic stress is associated with heart disease. It’s not healthy to have your blood vessels constricted all the time. But when participants in this study viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed under stress. The heart was still pounding, but their blood pressure didn’t go up in the same way. This is a much healthier cardiovascular response—stress scientists call it a “challenge response”—your body and brain are rising to the challenge. It looks a lot like what happens in your body during moments of joy. And courage.

Over a lifetime of stress, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s.

So we just did a stress mindset intervention. If you have experienced a lot of stress in the last year, we might have just saved your life. Because the next time your heart is pounding from stress, you’re going to think My body is helping me meet this challenge. The stress I feel is energy I can harness. When you view stress this way, your body believes you. And your stress response becomes healthier.

But why stop there? Let me share with you another way your stress response can help you, and how changing your mind about stress could save your life. It has to do with one of the most underappreciated aspects of stress. Stress can make you social.

To understand this side of stress, we need to talk about a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called the cuddle or love hormone because it’s released when you hug someone. But that’s a very small part of what this hormone is involved in.

Oxytocin is a neurohormone that fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do the things that strengthen close relationships. For example, oxytocin makes you hungry for human contact—it increases your desire to be around friends or family. It also enhances your empathy for what other people are thinking and feeling. It makes you more likely to help people you care about.

Some people have even suggested we should snort this hormone to become a better version of ourselves. But here’s what most people don’t know about oxytocin: It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out when you’re stressed. Oxytocin is as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound.

When oxytocin is released as part of the stress response, it’s encouraging you to connect with others. When life is difficult, stress wants you to be surrounded by people you care about—and who care about you. So your stress response will nudge you to tell someone how you’re feeling. It encourages you to find someone who shares your challenge, so you can team up. And it’s giving you the extra courage you need to ask for support—and to step up and help someone else. In fact, the most powerful effect oxytocin has in the brain is to decrease fear and increase hope.

So how can knowing this side of stress make you healthier? Well, oxytocin doesn’t just act on your brain; it also affects your body. One of its main roles in your body is to protect you from any harmful effects of stress. Oxytocin is anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. But my favorite physical effect is how it protects your heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone. Oxytocin helps your heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced injuries. This stress hormone can make your heart stronger.

What’s really cool is that when you connect with others you care about, these physiological effects of oxytocin are enhanced. The more you reach out, either to give or receive social support, the more oxytocin you release, the healthier your stress response gets, and the faster you recover from stress.

I find this amazing. The stress response has a built-in mechanism for resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.

If you can remember this when you’re stressed, you can tap into your own natural capacity for resilience. You can let stress be a reminder to reach out to others—and trust that your body and brain are primed by stress to strengthen those relationships. And this too, can save your life because research shows that social connection is the most protective, healing factor scientists have ever studied. People who regularly help others, and are open to receiving the support of others, live longer and in better health—and they are completely protected from the harmful effects of stress.

There’s one last side of stress I want to share with you. Take a look at this statement: “I consider my life to be meaningful.” How strongly do you agree with it? In 2013, researchers asked a broad sample of adults in the United States to rate how much they agreed with that statement. Then the researchers looked at distinguished people who strongly agreed with it and those who did not. What are the best predictors of a meaningful life? Is it religion? Age? What you do for a living? Hobbies? Personality?

One thing consistently predicted meaning, every way they measured it: stress. People who had experienced the highest number of stressful life events in the past were most likely to consider their lives meaningful. People who said they were under a lot of stress right now also rated their lives as more meaningful. Even minutes per day spent worrying about the future was associated with meaning.

One of the researchers’ main conclusions from this study was, “People with very meaningful lives have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.”

Now this is not because stress is meaningful in and of itself; it’s because stress is what arises when something that you care about is at stake. When you are involved in roles, relationships, and goals that matter, life is going to be stressful. And even though we don’t always enjoy that stress, it’s the challenges in our lives that strengthen us, and fuel our purpose, and help us make meaning. No matter what we’ve been told, the ideal life isn’t stress free.

But the really good news is this: The new science of stress tells us that the harmful effects of stress are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you view stress as helpful, you create the biology of courage. When you connect with others, you create resilience. When you embrace stress, you unleash its ability to help you thrive—and to continue building a life that is meaningful.

So the next time you find yourself feeling stressed, I want you to remember this: Stress is a signal to pay attention to what matters. It’s a call to action. It’s your brain and your body’s way of reminding you of what you care about. It gives you energy and it gives you access to your heart. Your compassionate heart—the part of you that finds comfort and joy in connecting with others. And, yes, your physical, pounding heart, working so hard to support you.

When you embrace these aspects of stress, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re also making a profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges, and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist who works at the intersection of neuroscience and the latest advances in understanding the mind-body connection. Her specialty is discovering ways to apply new scientific findings to personal health and happiness.


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