Stress makes you ill. That’s science, right? Everyone agrees.
But what if everyone were wrong? What if, in fact, we had been thinking about stress wrong the whole time? This is the argument of Kelly McGonigal, lecturer in Health Psychology at Stanford University, whose ideas may well quite simply keep you alive longer – and make your workplace a more pleasant environment.
Is it really stress that is dangerous?
In her TED Talk, McGonigal promotes the idea that we are misdiagnosing the problem when we think that stress is bad for us. As a psychologist, she admits to feeling probably guiltier than most about having misdiagnosed stress throughout her career. But now, it appears that it is less stress per se that is bad for our health. Rather, it is our attitude to stress that causes the trouble.
During her talk, she refers to a study that tracked thirty thousand adults for eight years. Before the study, they asked the participants a couple of questions: how stressed have you been in the last year? and do you believe stress is harmful for you? After the eight years, they used public records to find out who had died in the meantime.
Those who said that they experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had over a forty percent greater chance of dying. However, and this is the important bit, this increase was only true for those who thought that stress was harmful for them. Those who were super-stressed but didn’t think it was harmful showed no greater likelihood of dying. Rather, they were least likely to die out of everyone!
The results of the study suggest that it isn’t stress that is bad for you, but the belief that stress is bad for you. It seems that changing your mindset about stress can help you live longer!
She argues that we need to rethink how we consider stress and the symptoms of stress. “When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.” Says McGonigal.
All of those things we think of as negative and annoying – the sweating, the increase in your breathing rate, pounding heart etc. – should be thought of less as signs of anxiety, and more as signs that your body is energised and readying itself to deal with the oncoming challenge. It is preparing for what it needs to do.
The science, in fact, as McGonigal suggests, shows that, if we change our attitude to stress, the physiological response in your body can be changed from harmful to helpful. An example is related to your cardio vascular system. Normally in a stress response, where you feel anxious, your blood vessels constrict (a process called vasoconstriction). Chronic stress causes chronic vasoconstriction which is linked with cardio vascular disease. It’s not healthy to be in this state all the time.
However, when the individual perceives the stress responses as helpful, their blood vessels actually stayed relax during period of stress, a response much like the physiological reaction in moments of joy or courage. The only difference…their perception of stress was different. I have written about the value of perception in my article Make the Obstacle the Way.
Opening your heart to stress – or ‘making stress your friend’, in McGonigal’s words – does not only help your health – it makes you social.
McGonigal talks at length about oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ that is released when you hug someone. This neuro-hormone essentially makes you better at being social: it fine-tunes your brains social instincts making you seek physical contact, it heightens your capacity for empathy and, amazingly, it makes you want to help the people about whom you care.
But an incredible – and overlooked point – is that oxytocin is a stress hormone. Your body releases it – along with adrenaline – when you are stressed. Its effect, to motivate you to seek support from others, it helps you notice the struggles of others, it makes you want to be surrounded by people you care about. When you do seek support, this causes the production of more of this hormone.
That’s not all. An additional benefit, it actually protects your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It acts as a natural anti-inflammatory and actually helps heart cells regenerate. It strengthens your heart!
In another similar study, McGonigal tells us, those people who contributed to their community, who spent time caring for friends and family, those who were close to their loved ones – these people were at much less risk of feeling the damage done by stress. In fact, stress is a mechanism for human connection: it makes you caring, compassionate, and more resilient to the physiological effects of stress.
So at this point it seem important to highlight the role that team support in businesses can play and leverage this powerful effect. Team members who feel stressed and alone, will suffer. Those who are stressed but supported, and part of a close knit team, can thrive. As I’ve said before, working together to solve a problem or get through a stressful period can help your team be more effective and now from this research, healthier. This comes back to the vital structural element of Culture and teamwork in your business. Check out my interesting article on teamwork HERE.
So, stress shouldn’t be something that you fear. Really, if you fear it, it might be fatal! By changing your mind about stress, you might change your life.
As McGonigal says, “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage”. By changing your teams and your own perception, you can leverage stress’s powerful effects to your benefit, promoting its positive effects and using the surge in oxytocin to enable you to connect with others more effectively. Strengthening your heart physically and emotionally.
Perception is everything.