We need to rethink how we look at stress. Do I have your attention?
For more then a decade, I have written extensively about the devastating effects of chronic stress on our mental and physical health, both here at HealthCentral and elsewhere. So linked is stress to depression and mania that it pays to conceptualize bipolar as a downstream effect of stress. In effect, managing bipolar is a nonstarter without managing stress.
So far, so good. Here comes the rethinking part:
We see stress as a pathology. Yes, we recognize stress as an adaptive tool that primes us for fight or flight, but this is viewed as overkill in today's world. Basically, our ancient biology sets us up for tomorrow's heart attack, nervous breakdown, auto-immune disease, you name it.
Not so fast, says Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In an eye-opening TED talk, she confesses that for ten years she has taught people that stress is the enemy. But she has changed her mind.
Her epiphany came with a study (Keller et al, 2012) that tracked 30,000 adults over eight years. The researchers asked, “How much stress have you experienced in the past year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then they waited to see who died. No surprise: Those who had experienced a lot of stress in the past year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying.
Big surprise: This finding was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health. Not only that, people who experienced a lot of stress but did not think it was harmful had the lowest risk of dying, even lower than those who had very little stress.
According to Dr McGonigal, this translates to more than 20,000 Americans a year dying not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.
Dr McGonigal asks us to imagine ourselves under stress, heart pounding, breathing faster, breaking into a sweat. Normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we are not coping very well under pressure. “But what if you viewed them instead as your body was energized, preparing for you to meet this challenge?”
A Harvard study she cited (Jamieson et al, 2012) validates this view. In the study, participants were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful (breathing faster, for instance, gets more oxygen to the brain) before they were exposed to a standard stress test (such as doing a math test in public). The participants sailed through the test. Get ready for the significant finding:
Ordinarily, when stressed, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict. Those in the study experienced pounding hearts, but their blood vessels stayed relaxed. According to Dr McGonigal, the response “actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage.”
We’re just getting started. You may have heard of the neuro-hormone oxytocin, which has received a lot of attention as the “love hormone” or “the cuddle hormone,” but it also induces us to strengthen close relationships. Get ready: Oxytocin is actually a stress hormone. The pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of the stress response as adrenalin.