Make stress your friend
It turns out that your health can actually be more dependent on how you think about your stress than your actual stress level. There is a lot of science behind how chronic stress can make you susceptible to everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. Of course as a general rule we should all try to decrease our levels of chronic stress. However, it’s best not to make stress the enemy by fearing or always avoiding being in situations of stress.
When we are stressed emotionally or physically, our bodies release adrenalin and cortisol. Chronically high levels of these stress hormones has been shown to be detrimental. However, as Kelly McGonigal points out in TEDGlobal 2013, oxytocin is as much of a part of the stress response as adrenalin. Oxytocin is a neurohormone that is also called the ‘love hormone’ since it is not only released by cuddling, but also primes you to do things that strengthens those close relationships. This hormone fine tunes the brain’s social instinct and enhances empathy. Importantly, it also shields the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress by slowing the heart rate and protecting the heart. In addition to the fight or flight hormones, your body releases oxytocin to nudge you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling your feelings. It makes you notice when someone in your life is struggling so you can support each other and wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
So how is this important? Your life may be dependent on it. For every major stressful life experience, Poulin(1) showed that the chance of prematurely dying within the next 5 years increased by 30%. This was not true for those who spent time caring for others who had no increased chance of dying! It turns out that caring created resilience. Also, your belief surrounding the effects of stress are important. Keller(2), in a study of 34-90 year olds, showed that people who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying. This increased risk of prematurely dying was only true for those who believed that stress was harmful for their health. People who experienced high levels of stress but did not view stress as harmful actually had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in study including people who had little stress!
What is the take home message of these studies? Your body is amazing in that it releases a hormone to help it deal with the added strain that stress places – You can use this to your advantage. Your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. When you reach out to others under stress to seek support or to help someone, you release more oxytocin. Your stress response becomes healthier and you recover faster from stress.
Harmful affects of stress are not inevitable. However, how you think and act can transform the experience of stress. Choose to see your stress response as helpful since it is preparing you to deal with a challenge. By doing this, you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience. McGonigal states it nicely: Stress gives us access to our hearts, the compassionate heart that finds joy in connecting with others and the physical heart working hard to give you strength and energy. You can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges, and you don’t have to face them alone.
So, during this holiday of sacrifice and remembrance, take time to cherish the loved ones around you. Connecting, feeling compassion, and helping others can truly be protective to your own health. Chasing meaning is better for your health than avoiding stress/discomfort – go after what creates meaning in your life, then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.
1.Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillar AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9)1649-55.
2. Keller A, Litzelman K, Wisk LE, Maddox T, Cheng ER, Creswell PD, Witt WP. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychol, 2012 Sep;31(5):677-84.