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What You Think About Stress Matters

“Stress gives us access to our hearts...”

If you have not seen author and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s TedTalks lecture, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” it's time to carve out fourteen and a half minutes for this important health strategy. Her work focuses on how to address stress in the most life-enhancing, empowering way. This information puts us in a position of power, as opposed to feeling like a victim of circumstances, scrambling to do what we can to alleviate the effects of stress. Stress is an unavoidable aspect of life we all experience in varying degrees throughout our human experience. We are constantly bombarded with information on the dangerous effects of stress in relation to our health in the media today. Most of us know that stress wreaks havoc on the body—mentally, physically, emotionally, and more. While we tend to be on guard against stress and do what we can to reduce its effects, damage control only goes so far. Cultivating self-care practices to create balance and peace are helpful, but there is also a way to use stress to change the body’s negative stress response:

Reframe your mindset to support your body’s chemistry.

In a research study, 20,000 adults were tracked over a period of 8 years. Participants were asked how much stress they have had in the past year, and then, they were asked about their beliefs about stress (i.e., Do you believe stress is harmful to your health). Later, researchers tracked death records to see who died. People who had a lot of stress had a 43% increase risk of dying, but that was only true of those who believed stress is harmful for your health. Those who did not view stress as harmful but had an equally stressful year were no more likely to die— in fact, they had the lowest risk of dying including over those with the lowest levels of stress. The research presented demonstrates how powerful a role our beliefs play in affecting our biology. By transforming our perspective on stress, we can release many of the so-called inevitable effects of stress. We have a choice now. We can use stress to thrive. Here’s how according to Kelly McGonigal:

  • When you view your body’s response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. Rethink your stress response (i.e., pounding heart, sweaty palms, erratic breathing, etc.) as helpful for your performance to reduce anxiety and boost confidence. In a Harvard study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed and the images of their hearts mirrored what occurs in moments of joy.

  • Your new mantra: MY BODY IS PREPARED TO MEET THE CHALLENGE. THIS IS MY BODY HELPING ME RISE TO THIS CHALLENGE. Your body will believe you, and your stress response changes as a result.

  • Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience and that is connection. Oxytocin (aka the bonding hormone) is a stress hormone and therefore, an aspect of the stress response. Your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you to reduce stress. Oxytocin primes you to strengthen relationships, as well as to enhance empathy, compassion, and caring as part of the stress response. Oxytocin also protects your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress—it helps blood vessels, functions as a natural anti-inflammatory, and regenerates heart cells.

  • Caring for others creates stress resilience. Practice compassion and connection by helping your friends, neighbors, and community.

  • It has been shown that chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. Chase meaning, and then trust yourself enough to handle the stress that follows.

The ramifications of this information go far beyond the effects of stress. Observing and adjusting your belief system is a powerful way to transform the state of your health. Know that the body is beautifully and perfectly designed as demonstrated by the role of oxytocin. Trust the innate intelligence of your body to work for you and support you at all times.

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