This week, systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC discuss the link between the way you think about stress and the effect that stress has on you.
Stress is bad for you, right? As a symptom of the fight or flight response of the body, it causes us to pump our system full of stress hormones, raises our pulses, changes our blood sugar balance and prepares us to run for our lives or take our last stand. Of course, the trigger for this response in the modern world is not a sabre tooth tiger or a violent raid by a marauding tribe, but more often a work deadline or a difficult conversation with the boss or client. Prolonged existence in a stressful state has been linked to an increase in premature death through a number of illnesses, including heart disease and cancer.
But modern research has called into question the belief that stress is necessarily bad. A study in the USA tracked 30,000 adults for a period of eight years. It asked them how much stress they had experienced in the last year, and, importantly, whether they believed that stress was harmful to their health. Public death records were then used to record the deaths of participants. The results were startling.
People who said they had experienced high levels of stress had a 42 per cent increased chance of dying. But this was only true for the group who had identified stress as being bad for their health. People who experienced high levels of stress but did not view stress as harmful, had no increased risk of death. In fact, their risk of death was less than the group who said they were experiencing relatively low levels of stress.
This led researchers to conclude that tens of thousands of people die prematurely not because of stress itself, but because of their belief that stress is had for you. Literally, it may not be the stress that is the killer, but the way we think about it.
As well-known health psychologist and Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal explains, “Your heart might be pounding, you might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat. Normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping well with the physical pressure. But what if you view them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet the challenge?”
Research at Harvard University suggests that by changing our attitude to stress, we can indeed change the way our body responds to stress. Participants were asked to take part in stress tests. However, some were taught to re-think their stress responses as helpful to them, and as providing them with positive support for the tasks ahead. Those who had re-thought their stress response as helpful showed different physiological responses to stress. Their blood vessels stayed relaxed, and their response was more reflective of feelings of joy.
So how you think about stress can determine whether stress is good or bad for you. More than that, there is evidence that Oxytocin – one of the hormones released by the pituitary gland during the stress response – acts on your body to protect your cardiovascular system against the signs of stress, and to help your heart cells regenerate following a stressful situation. Oxytocin is also associated with enhanced empathy, a need for social contact and the desire to receive or give support.
So the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. Next time you face a stressful situation, prepare yourself by seeing your stress response as a positive, helpful and supportive resource being provided by your wonderful body. As McGonigal explains, “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 resilience.”
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles.