Stress is OK – Changing Your Perspective On Stress

This week I watched a video by Kelly McGonigal that transformed my attitude to stress and teaching how to manage stress.

The mindful attitude of ‘leaning in’ to a difficult emotion and bringing a curious attention to how it feels as a physical sensation is something I have been using for years now and I’ve found it has been so powerful for many clients. But it was still too easy to talk about stress as something that was wrong and did not belong. Hard to open the door to stress and say “welcome, you belong here”. But this video has made it clear that this attitude of welcoming and allowing and reframing the inner dialogue around what is perceived as a negative experience is vital for real health and freedom.

Stress will kill you….but only if you think it is bad

The talk starts by looking at a study conducted in the US that followed 30,000 adults over 8 years. It started by asking each participant: “do you think stress is bad for your health”. It then monitored people and looked at death rates among the participants. The study found that indeed stress did lead to a 43%  increased risk of death…… those two thought that stress was a problem. Among those who did not think stress was a problem there was no increased risk of death and in fact many lived longer than those saying they had no stress.

The study observed that if this was extended to the US population as a whole it would mean there were 20,000 deaths per year simply due to believing that stress was bad for you and that simply changing how you think about stress can make you healthier and live longer.

Another Way To View Stress

When we are stressed the heart starts beating faster. This is part of our fight/flight/freeze survival system. We are getting ready to run or fight. What also happens is the blood vessels constrict, and this is what leads to rises in blood pressure which can at times be fatal. What was observed in individuals who saw stress as helpful was that although their heart rate went up their arteries stayed relaxed. This was more in line with what happens when we feel excited or in moments of courage. Kelly says in the talk: “this one biological change could prevent a stress induced heart attack in your mid 50s and instead living a long life”.

The key takeaway from the talk is: “don’t get rid of stress get better at feeling it”. One way of doing this is the next time you are in a stressful situation and you feel the shaking in your body and the heart rate going up and the sweat under your arm pits, instead of telling yourself off for feeling stressed or trying a technique to remove stress, allow the response to stress to be there and tell yourself: “this is great, this is my body helping me to raise to this challenge”. Feel strong because your body is haivng a stress response, rather than telling yourself you are weak for feeling stressed.



The Cuddle Chemical And How It Helps Us Heal

Kelly went on to talk about the relationship between stress and oxytocin. You may know oxytocin as the ‘cuddle chemical’, as it is released when we have loving touch with another or are in social contact with those we feel at ease around. What I didn’t know was that oxytocin is released as part of the stress response along with cortisol. It protects our body from the harmful effects of stress by being a natural anti inflammatory and it promotes healing in the heart after any stress induced damage. It also motivates us to reach out and connect to others at times stress, so that we can find support and healing.

If we override this impulse of connecting to a friend at a time of stress by telling ourselves we are weak for needing another, or that others will see us as a failure, or that we should not be feeling stress and so have no right to ask another for their comfort then we loose this healing benefit of oxytocin motivating us to connect to another. Instead we may just try to present our brave instagram face to the world rather than let others know we are in a difficult situation. Perhaps the paradox of our modern world is we are more connected than ever to others and yet more alone.

Even when we are asked “how are you” our reply is so often “I’m fine” rather than to say how we really are. Perhaps this is ok in a social situation where we do not know people but how often have you said it to a friend and not reached out to say “I’m hurting”. I like to answer this question as honestly as I can and one time I was meeting some people I didn’t know and was asked this and said that I was hurting and why. It started a really brilliant open conversation where they shared how they struggle with the same thing. We connected and both felt held by the other acknowledging this shared human experience of struggle, even though we had only just met.

Part of the oxytocin effect is that is motivates us to connect with others in a caring way. Kelly describes a research project that asked people if they had had major stressful life experiences and also how much time they spent helping others in their local community. The study found that for every stressful life event a person had their risk of dying increased by 30%, but that amount those who spent time caring for others in some way through volunteer work or helping neighbours there was no increased risk of death and they bounced back from stressful situations more easily.

Stress Is Inevitable…..Being Harmed By Stress Is Not

Kelly concludes her talk by saying: “The harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view your stress response as helpful you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress you can create reliance.”

Her key takeaway is: the pounding heart is getting you ready for battle, as you feel this racing heart tell yourself you have the strength to face life’s challenges and you don’t have to do it alone.

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