Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Re-thinking the effects of stress

Do you often experience high levels of stress? Are you therefore trying to achieve a moderate level of stress so that you can stay healthy and happy? Wait a moment. Maybe this is not necessary. Recent research says that stress might in fact be good for your health – under certain conditions.

In a TED Talk, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how her own notion of stress was changed by a longitudinal study in which researchers found that stress increases the risk of dying, but only when you believe it to be harmful for your health. If you don’t, you have a lower risk of dying – lower even than the risk of those who experience low levels of stress. In her talk, she outlines how changing how you think about stress can make you healthier.


If people believe the stress response of their body to be helpful (“If your heart beat increases, it will give you more energy; if your breath becomes faster, it will give you more oxygen.”), they feel less stressed out. Surprisingly, when thinking like this, the physiological response of their bodies resembles the one that appears in a state of joy. Moreover, stress increases the level of oxytocin, which is good for the heart. This hormone is enhanced by social contact and social support. The effect of social support during stressful times was investigated in another study that looked at people’s risk of dying after personal crises. Such crises increased people’s risk of dying, but this was not the case when they spent a lot of time caring for others.

Kelly McGonigal comes to the conclusion that how you think and how you act can transform the effects of stress. Her advice is to view your stress response as helpful and to connect with others under stress. This will put your body into a positive physiological state and enhance your resilience.

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