Is there an upside to stress?
1: In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked a series of questions about stress.
How much stress had they experienced in the past year? Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?
“Eight years later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died,” writes Kelly McGonigal in The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It
As predicted, high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent.
But not all the results were as expected.
The biggest surprise?
“The increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health.
“People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die,” Kelly writes. “In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.”
Stress by itself wasn’t killing people. It was their belief that stress is harmful that was killing people.
“The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health,” Kelly shares. “According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that would make ‘believing stress is bad for you’ the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.”
2: Kelly is a health psychologist. At the time of the study, she was one of many psychologists, doctors, and scientists warning about the dangers of stress. “I believed that it was a dangerous epidemic that had to be stopped,” she recalls. “I told people that stress makes you sick; that it increases your risk of everything from the common cold to heart disease, depression, and addiction; and that it kills brain cells, damages your DNA, and makes you age faster.”
Today, Kelly has done a complete 180 about the role of stress and she believes we should change our minds, too. “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful,” Kelly writes. “It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.”
How we think about stress affects everything from our cardiovascular health to our ability to find meaning in life.
The research is clear. “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it. So, my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to help you get rid of your stress—I want to make you better at stress,” she writes.
3: The stakes are high.
“People who endorse a stress-is-harmful mindset,” Kelly shares, “are more likely to say that they cope with stress by trying to avoid it. For example, they are more likely to:
-Try to distract themselves from the cause of the stress instead of dealing with it.
-Focus on getting rid of their feelings of stress instead of taking steps to address its source.
-Turn to alcohol or other substances or addictions to escape the stress.
-Withdraw their energy or attention from whatever relationship, role, or goal is causing the stress.”
People who believe stress can be helpful are more proactive in dealing with stress. “They are more likely to:
-Accept the fact that the stressful event has occurred and is real.
-Plan a strategy for dealing with the source of stress.
-Seek information, help, or advice.
-Take steps to overcome, remove, or change the source of stress.
-Try to make the best of the situation by viewing it in a more positive way or by using it as an opportunity to grow.”
When we deal with challenges head-on, instead of trying to avoid or deny them, problems are dealt with, instead of spiraling out of control. This builds our confidence to handle life’s challenges. Mistakes become opportunities to grow. We are also more likely to create a network of social support.
“In this way,” Kelly writes, “the belief that stress is helpful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Reflection: What is my view of stress? Is it something to be reduced or avoided? Or, do I embrace stress in order to make things happen?
Action: Take a few minutes to journal about my answers to the above questions.