health

Stressed? Two simple (but mostly unknown) facts will help you feel a whole lot calmer.

Stress. In a photo.

As a typically Type-A, serial over-committer, stress has always been a big part of my life.

Wait, did I just say “big”? I mean huge. Stress has always been a HUGE part of my life. Which means, like many people I know, I’ve spent a huge part of my life trying to manage my stress out of my life.

Now don’t get me wrong. Some stress in life is actually good.

Stress equals arousal and being at optimum arousal allows us to perform at our best under pressure. This comes in handy when we need to get a uni essay done in a day, or cater for six unexpected dinner guests.

But existing in a state of ever-present stress takes us beyond optimum arousal. It takes us into a permanently aroused state – one where our sleep is affected, our blood pressure rises and we can suffer from headaches or stomach pains. And if you’re like me, stress can also trigger anxiety and depression.

It’s for these reasons I’ve always believed ongoing stress is terrible for our health and have preached long and hard that it’s something we all need to be aware of.

And I’ve been in good company. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal had always thought this too.

In a TED talk viewed over 4 million times she confessed:

I fear that something I’ve been teaching for the last 10 years is doing more harm than good, and it has to do with stress. For years I’ve been telling people, ‘stress makes you sick’. Basically, I’ve turned stress into the enemy.

Up to this point in her talk I was thinking ‘well duh, stress IS the enemy. Stress IS bad.’

Then McGonigal reveals the first of two surprising things that can help all of us deal with stress better.

1.     Stress is only bad for us if we think it is

“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” Who knew?

A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison asked the question: “Does the perception that stress affects health matter?

And stunningly, the answer was YES.

Translated into the simplest terms, the results of the study revealed:

If we think stress is bad for us, then it is.

So now we know why McGonigal was mortified she’d been telling patients for years that stress was

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bad for them. But she didn’t stand around being mortified for too long. Instead she wondered if changing the way you think about stress could make you healthier.

Once again, the science says YES.

Participants in a Harvard study were subjected to a social stress test. Before they did the test, some were told to view the stress response the test would provoke as helpful. (And of course some weren’t.)

The ones who were told to view the stress response as helpful experienced, not just an increase in their performance, but remarkably, a change in their physical stress response.

McGonigal expands:

In a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict. And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It’s not really healthy to be in this state all the time. But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed … Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50, and living well into your 90s.

But that’s not all. McGonigal had one more surprising thing to share.

2.     Connecting with others socially and caring for others reduces your response to stress too.

It’s all about the oxytocin apparently.

Here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone … And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support … When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you …

Oxytocin doesn’t just act on your brain … one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress, it helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress …

The cool thing is that all [the physical benefits of oxytocin] are enhanced by social contact and social support, so when you reach out to each other under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress.

When I heard these two things for the first time, my mind was completely blown.

For years, whenever I’d start to feel wrung out, I’d get stressed about being stressed. In recent times I’ve tried the two things McGonigal shared in her talk and I can tell you, they really work.

I’ve got more going on in my life now than I’ve ever had, but I don’t feel that ‘bubbling in my blood’ stress response I used to get. Which means I also don’t feel like I’m constantly at the top of a slippery slope, only ever a hairsbreadth away from spiralling down into anxiety and depression.

So do yourself a favour. Watch McGonigal’s TED talk below. It goes for 15 minutes and I promise it’ll be one of the best investments you will ever make in your health.

[ted id=1815]

Mother, runner, writer, blogger. Serial over-committer. Kelly believes a busy life need not be a stressful life. She blogs about embracing the busy by living intentionally at A Life Less Frantic. Her new book ‘Your Best Year Yet – 7 simple ways to shift your thinking and take charge of your life’ is now available in Kindle format here.

Do you get stressed about being stressed? What helps calm you down?

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