Is stress actually good for us?

1: The headline read: “A mother’s stress is passed on to her baby in the womb!”

The message landed like a bomb. Kelly McGonigal‘s friend was under a lot of pressure at work. Did she need to go on early maternity leave to keep her baby healthy?

“I encouraged her to take a deep breath,” Kelly writes in her book The Upside of Stress. “The study she had seen was done on rats, not humans. (Yes, I looked it up—what are friends for?) The rats’ stress during pregnancy consisted of two things: daily restraint stress—a euphemism for putting an animal in a container no bigger than its body, with minimal holes for ventilation—and forced swimming, or making a rat tread water until it starts to drown.

“As much pressure as my friend felt at work, it was nothing like this,” Kelly observes.

In fact, when we look at human studies, the data about stress during pregnancy suggests the reverse.

“A 2011 review of over a hundred studies found that only severe stress, such as surviving a terrorist attack or being homeless during pregnancy, increased the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. Higher levels of daily stress and hassles did not. Some degree of stress during pregnancy may even benefit the baby. For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that women who reported greater stress during pregnancy had babies born with superior brain development and higher heart rate variability, a biological measure of resilience to stress.

“The exposure to a mom’s stress hormones in the womb teaches a baby’s developing nervous system how to handle stress,” Kelly writes.

2: This week we are looking at some of the key lessons from Kelly’s terrific book. Yesterday, we learned the science shows stress is harmful only if we think it is harmful.

Psychologist Alia Crum and her colleagues have developed a Stress Mindset Measure to assess people’s views of stress.

     -Mindset 1: Stress Is Harmful. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided. 

     -Mindset 2: Stress Is Enhancing. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized. 

3: The “stress is harmful” mindset is much more prevalent.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health showed that 85 percent of Americans agreed that stress has a negative impact on health, family life, and work. The American Psychological Association (APA) Stress in America survey indicates most people perceive their own stress levels as unhealthy.

Perceptions about a healthy level of stress are on the decline, Kelly notes. In the 2007 APA survey, people perceived a moderate level of stress as ideal. Now, survey participants perceive that same moderate level of stress as unhealthy.

“The science of stress is complex,” Kelly notes, “and there is no doubt that some stressful experiences lead to negative outcomes.”

But we are not lab rats. “The stress those animals were exposed to is the worst possible kind: unpredictable, uncontrollable, and completely devoid of meaning, Kelly writes. “The stress in our own lives rarely fits this description.

“Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning,” Kelly states. “This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What are my assumptions about the impact of stress in my life? Do I recognize situations where stress is helpful?

Action: Journal about it.

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