For years we’ve come to believe that if we’re stressed, we’re unhealthy. We spend money on vacations and are constantly searching for ways to avoid stress. But new information is showing us that, when used correctly, stress can be beneficial to health. In a recent TED talk, “How to make stress your friend,” psychologist Kelly McGonigal shared that the way people view stress is more harmful to our health than the stress itself. Furthermore, seeing stress as a way to tackle difficult situations can nurture resilience to the negative feelings we often attribute to stressful circumstances.
Various studies show that it is our reaction to stress that shortens our lives, not stress itself. Stress can change how we interact with our environment and take on complex tasks. For example a social stress test conducted at Harvard University showed that people who believed stress would help them meet various challenges—like preparing a 5-minute impromptu speech—had a better body reaction than those who weren’t told that stress would help. Additionally, McGonigal explained how stress makes us more social. Oxytocin, the hormone that is released when we experience physical connection, is also released when we experience stress. This hormone naturally encourages us to be more social and to act in ways that show love and support for one another. Our bodies tell us that in order to combat stress, we need to look for physical contact and ways of showing love. When we act on that push to connect with other humans our recovery time is a lot quicker, and this creates certain resilience to stressful situations.
An additional study showed that people who helped others despite their stress were no more likely to die of stress-related illness. If we believe that stress leads to a quicker death, we might avoid taking on certain tasks such as spending a weekend helping a friend move or volunteering at an event because we are busy giving ourselves “me time.” While spending time alone could help individuals recharge, our body is actually trying to tell us that we need to go to others and find human connection to heal. We often treat our thoughts as dependent on our external situations. We might attribute a difficult financial situation or work project to the stress we have or the reason for our back pain or other physical ailment. This view, however, is very passive, implying that our mind is not able to control how we feel or react to our exterior world. But what if we took these physical ailments and stressful situations as opportunities to learn and grow? McGonigal talks about how our body is basically wired to use stress in a positive and effective way, but, as physician Rüdiger Dahlke says, the same can apply to our illnesses and their symptoms. In “The power of illness” [September/October, p. 42] Dahlke says “people don’t have diseases for 20 or 30 years, and then they get cancer. They have suppressed everything until that moment.” Medicine has made wonderful advances, helping relieve symptoms and pain. However, we can’t replace our reaction to stress or sickness with pills—it is important to realize that there is so much we can control with our mind.
Listen to Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk to hear about her research and findings.