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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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Sara

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

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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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