Rethinking Stress: How Changing Your Thinking Could Save Your Life

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.                                                                   
  5. 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:

  1. Frame stress as a challenge rather than a threat. When you do this, you become alive to the opportunities, rather than the threats.
  2. 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. 

18 Comments

David from indonesia

Good article. I prove it with my stress tracker on my mobile phone. The result is owesome. Everytime i reframe my stress perception my tracker show low level of stress. My heart beat become slower. Oxigen saturation higher. Very good ideas. Thank you.

Reply
Andrea

I’m not sure even after reading this article about positive effect of stress…..because all my life I’ve heard the adverse of stress………Infact,I am a real proof of suffering stress….I can’t match with this mine……..Is there any way to prove that this research is hypocritical ??

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Stress can absolutely have negative effects, but what this research is saying is that the way stress is framed is what does the damage. Our default position is often to think of stress as something negative. Part of this is because our wiring is designed to be particularly sensitive to anything that might be detrimental to us and to respond as though it is a threat. It can be really difficult to switch to thinking of stress as something other than negative, and it might take some practice particularly if you have a lifetime of proof of the adverse effects of stress, but the research is saying it can make a difference.

Reply
Rachael King

Great article absolutely couldn’t agree more with what you have written. Reframing stress to see what benefits its brings and using mindfulness the perfect combination .Thanks for sharing. I wanted to email this to article to a colleague but she is not on any social media, is there a link I could use to send on? Thanks Rachael King

Reply
Sascha

Very interesting article! Unfortunately the link to the research from Harvard doesn’t work, is there anywhere I can find out more about this research? Would like to know more about the sources used for the article!

Thanks!

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Julie

Fascinating article, thank you. I was especially intrigued to learn that the stress response triggers the release of oxytocin! I really like the idea of this, and I can see how it could work in some situations where the stressful cause is a one-off event and you can see that the fight or flight response could be useful. But what about chronic and more low key stress that is due to feeling constantly overwhelmed at all that needs to be done and never feeling like there is enough time to get through half of it? I consider myself a pretty positive person but it’s hard to see an upside to that sort of stress. Any suggestions welcome!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

It’s really interesting research isn’t it. The more constant, low key stress is more something that’s best to be managed – exercise, diet, mindfulness, sleep – not always easy, I know!

Reply
Ann

Awesome article. It is wonderful to know there is something you can do about the stress instead of just get rid of it. Many people have stressful situations but cannot change it. Now I can say bring it on! Love it.

Reply
heysigmund

Well said! You’re right. Being in a stressful situation you can’t change just adds to the stress – but this is such a simple way to turn it around. This is why I love psychology!

Reply
Karenna Reidy

What a fascinating article! I’m definitely going to try positive reappraisal next time I’m stressed(if I’m not too stressed to remember!)

Reply
heysigmund

It’s amazing research isn’t it! It’s certainly changed the way I deal with my own stress. That’s the rub though isn’t it – making sure you remember to do it!

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K

Great article, i have ptsd and muscle memory that affects my autonomic nervous system. I use mindfulness as my number one aid, but this article is great as instead of thinking oh no stressed or trigger, which is always my first thought, I can see it would be beneficial to think, oh body preparing for flight or fright and try to stay with the process. Very interesting, thank you.

Reply
heysigmund

You’re welcome. I’m so pleased the article found its way to you. The mind is such a powerful thing isn’t it. Thank you for taking the time to make contact.

Reply
Sara

I love this and I’m going to actively try it to see if it helps with my stress levels and anxiety.

Reply
heysigmund

I’m so pleased you got something out of this article. I thought the research was fascinating – and it makes such good sense! Would love to know how you go.

Reply

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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