We know stress can cause physical harm as well as premature death – but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, rethinking stress to be a friend rather than a foe can serve a protective function and make stress something that works for us, rather than against us.
The physiological changes that come about from stress are not necessarily bad for us.
The key lies in our thinking. Our perception of stress can shift it from a negative force to a more positive one. Let me explain.
Stress: The Mind-Body Connection
It’s been long established that the mind and body are closely connected. Now, research has found that the way we think about stress could add decades to our lives. Yep. Decades.
Research from Harvard has found that reframing stress as helpful rather than harmful can improve performance and reverse the physiological changes brought about by stress.
In the first of its kind, a massive study of almost 30,000 participants explored the relationship between the experience of stress, the perception of how stress affects health, and mortality. Researchers used data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Here’s what they found:
- The risk of premature death was increased if people who were experiencing stress believed that stress would adversely impact their health.
- Those who reported experiencing high stress and who also believed that stress adversely affected health had a 43% increase in the risk of premature death.
- Those who experienced high stress but didn’t believe it to be harmful were at the lowest risk of dying – even lower than people who didn’t experience a lot of stress.
Though further research is needed to establish a causal relationship, the evidence from this study is compelling. Stress alone isn’t dangerous, but perceiving it to be is. If this were a causal relationship (and there’s no evidence yet that it is), the combination of the experience of stress, together with the perception that stress is bad for health would be around the 14th leading cause of death.
How Does it Work?
The exact mechanisms aren’t clear but there are a few compelling theories.
- Previous research has found that people who have a pessimistic expectation of life show poorer mental and physical health. They also display more negative health symptoms even in response to a placebo. Negative expectations may give rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the expectation that stress is harmful negatively influences the self-reporting of health.
- People who have experienced moderate amounts of stress before may be more resilient to stress in the future. Therefore, when faced with a lot of stress, they have experience telling them that they get through it relatively unscathed.
- Those who believe that stress adversely affects their health may be more likely to believe that stress is attributable to circumstances outside of their control. Research has shown that people who believe that control of things, like health, lies outside of themselves are more likely to experience trouble than those who believe their health is within their control.
- In the same way anxiety spirals because of ‘anxiety about the anxiety’, being ‘stressed about the stress’ would likely exacerbate the experience of stress as well as the physiological effects.
- Research has found that thinking about stress in a positive light stops blood vessels constricting during stress. It’s this constriction has a hefty contribution to cardiovascular disease. Viewing stress as something positive actually keeps the blood vessels relaxed, similar to what happens when people experience joy and courage. When the effect of this is taken over a lifetime, this alone could be the difference between dying of a heart attack mid-life, and living a long and heart-attack free life.
When you view stress in a positive way, as something that is there to help you, your body believes you and your physiological response to stress becomes much healthier.
Stress? Helpful? Prove it. (Okay, here goes …)
- When something happens to cause stress, the brain activates the body for fight or flight. As part of this process, heart rate increases to send oxygen effectively to the brain – fuel for the brilliance that’s about to follow. Now you are perfectly positioned to deal with the challenge coming your way.
Researchers from the University of California have found that some stress is good for you, as it keeps the brain more alert and improves performance. In studies done on rats (chosen because of their genetic and biological similarity to humans), a stressful event initated the proliferation of nerve cells that, upon maturity two weeks later, improved mental performance.
During times of physical or psychological stress, oxytocin (also known as the bonding hormone or the cuddle hormone) is released by the pituitary gland. Oxytocin works on the social centres of the brain, priming you to bond with others, look for support and strengthen relationships. The release of oxytocin is your brain’s way of encouraging you to talk to someone about whatever it is you’re going through.
Why do we look for emotional support? Because it’s good for us – it’s what we humans are wired to do – but also because emotional support from others is associated with a reduced physiological stress response. It decreases the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Oxytocin is also a natural anti-inflammatory that protects the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. During times of stress, it helps blood vessels stay relaxed and it helps heart cells heal from any damage done to them by stress. When you reach out for support, your body will release even more of this wonder-hormone to help you recover faster and more fully from stress. We are wired to seek out human connection and this is why. Our challenge is to listen to that, so nature can work its magic.
Under certain conditions, short term stress prepares the immune system system for assault from environmental stressors such as wounds, medical procedures, infection, vaccination, or a hard fought stint on a sports field. During stress, the body’s defenders – the immune cells – enter the blood stream. As the stressor progresses, the cells leave the blood and enter the parts of the body that are about to go to battle, such as the skin.
The stress response increases the potentency of the immune cells. According to Professor of Psychiatry Firdaus S Dhabbar of Stanford University, recovery from surgery or vaccination is quicker if the stress response is activitated. This is also the case with immunisation. Psychological stress or a short bout of exercise before a vaccination will significantly increase the effectiveness of the vaccine response because a stress response will be activated.
But I’ve been Drummed About the Evils of Stress. How Do I Change My Thinking Now?
Stress is there to help us to survive, not to harm us. Of course,it doesn’t always work out like this but according to research, this is due to our perception of stress, rather than the stress itself. The good news about perception is that changing it is something we can conrol.
How? Two words – positive reappraisal – which really just means change the way you think about it to change its emotional impact. The idea is to rethink stress to be something positive, rather than something harmful. We know from tons of research that the way you think about something will effect how you feel about it. Here are two ways to do this:
- Frame stress as a challenge rather than a threat. When you do this, you become alive to the opportunities, rather than the threats.
- Rather than thinking of stress as the enemy, think of it as something that’s going to energise you and get your body ready to perform at its prime.
Your heart might feel like it’s about to beat itself out of your chest – but that’s okay, because it’s getting the oxygen to your brain so you can do what you need to do to shine.
Your body might be shaking, but that’s just energy – positioning you for a stellar performance.
For A Boost, Add this
So how does a person let go of thinking one way about stress and start thinking about it in a positive light?
Researchers (not just me!) have suggested mindfulness as a mechanism.
Positive reappraisal and mindfulness seem to work together to reduce the effects of stress.
By stepping back from thoughts, emotion and feeings, mindfulness can make way for potentially damaging thoughts to be reappraised.
We know that mindfulness can reduce stress by inducing the relaxation response, but it can also produce physical changes in the cardiovascular and autonomic systems. This gives mindfulness a degree of heft over and above it being simply a relaxation response. Research has found that although mindfulness and relaxation can improve mood, only mindfulness has the capacity to decrease ruminative thoughts – the tendency to think about things over and over, and a risk factor for depression.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, see here for one.