Making Stress Your Friend

Recently, I was listening to Psychologist Kelly McGonigal talk about stress. We all know that stress can be detrimental, and there is significant research that indicates its negative impact on health. However, stress is something that most of us experience a moderate to high amount in life. There are many tactics, medications, and remedies to help manage stress more effectively.

Due to some of the negative health problems that stress can cause, stress has been turned into the enemy and into an emotional state that we should run from.

In this blog, I will encourage you to think about stress in a different light. Dr. McGonigal discusses research that espouses that people who perceive stress to be physically harmful are more likely to have physical side affects than individuals who do not perceive stress to be physically detrimental.

Dr. McGonigal asks a significant question about stress. Will changing your mindset about stress change the way your body reacts to stress?

Research suggests that when you change your mind’s viewpoint on stress, you can change your body’s reaction. She talks about the way we interpret the symptoms of stress during a time that we are stressed out. Our hands may be sweaty, our hearts may be racing, and there may be tension building in our shoulders. We often take those symptoms to mean that we are not coping well with the challenge at hand. However, Dr. McGonigal urges us to look at symptoms as a way that our bodies are going to meet and conquer the challenge. It is our bodies’ way of getting us through the stressful time.

Throughout life there are significant events that are bound to trigger a stressful response within us. In the next two blogs, we will discuss how changing your mindset can change your body’s negative reaction to stress. If you get a chance, take a look at Dr. McGonigal’s lecture here.

Astoundingly, participants who were able to view their stress symptoms as helpful were more confident and less stressed out.

In fact, their physical response also changed. Instead of their hearts beating fast and heart blood vessels constricting, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Dr. McGonigal went on to explain that this cardiovascular picture looked much the same when people are experiencing joy as well as courage.

This outcome would indicate that the people in this study believed that their bodies would meet the stress that came at them, and they were confident in this belief.

Dr. McGonigal ventured that this one biological change could be the difference between having a stress-induced heart attack in your 50’s or living healthy, well into your 90’s. Research is showing that how you think about stress can have very different effects on your heath.

Instead of trying to eliminate the stress in your life, it would be healthier to view it in a different light.

In the last part of this series, we will investigate how the hormone oxytocin is a critical component to the stress response.

Dr. McGonigal notes that this hormone motivates your brain to seek support and let someone know how you feel instead of bottling it up. This hormone also encourages you to notice and support others when they are struggling. Your body, and particularly this hormone, wants you to be supported by people who care during a time that is particularly stressful. Essentially, your body is naturally craving human connection in order to mentally and emotionally assist you in your time of need.

Not only does this hormone act on your brain, it also benefits your body. oxytocin armors the cardiovascular system against the negative impacts of stress. In fact, oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress induced damage. All of these physical benefits are enhanced by social contact and support or giving support to others when they are in need.

In fact, when you reach out to others during this time, your body releases more of this hormone and gets stronger at handling stress.

The most eye-opening concept that Dr. McGonigal introduced was the concept that the body has a built in mechanism for stress resistance, which is human connection. Human connection brings value to our lives and has many benefits including protecting our bodies from the negative effects of stress.

Stress is inevitable in life. However, you can choose how you experience stress. By choosing to connect with others during stressful times, you create resilience in your body. Dr. McGonigal espouses that when you begin to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.

Chelsey Beauchamp, MS
cbeauchamp @ growcounseling.com