How stress can become healthy or how to get better at stress…

We’re all stressed and overwhelmed trying to juggle work, family, school, social life etc.

I recently read a few articles about stress and I particularly found a TEDx talk by PhD, health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, Kelly McGonigal quite game-changing about this topic.

In her talk, Kelly McGonigal explains the interactions between the mind and the body when we’re stressed. We all are told that stress is harmful for our lives, “that stress leads to immunosuppression and therefore increases susceptibility to infection and delayed healing. Hormone changes lead to PMS and increases risk of cardiovascular disease in those reporting higher levels of stress” or that stress makes us “sick, that it increases the risk of everything from the comming cold to cardiovascular disease” (1:10).

We are all aware of stress’s physical effects on us: it makes our heart pound, our breathing quicken etc. In the last years, stress has been made into a public health enemy. But new research suggests that stress “may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case”.

In her speech, Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as positive and introduces us to the mechanism for stress reduction: “if you change your mind about stress, you can change your body as response to stress” (3:19 sgg).

All this is not really new. Since Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson’s study (in 1908) about levels of arousal, we know about the potential benefits of stress. Their Yerkes-Dodson Law “outlines the correlation between levels of physiological and psychological arousal with performance”:

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

Arousal is part of the stress response – cfr. the “Fight or Flight” response – and in the picture above we can see how useful its intensity is for a strong performance (on a short term!).

Others use the terms, eustress and distress, respectively “good stress” and “bad stress” (cfr. by endocrinologist Hans Seyle), eustress making us feel great and healthy, whereas distress makes us feel miserable, overwhelmed.

It’s mainly because stress is commonly considered our enemy that many people (therapists, medical doctors etc.) did encourage to avoid or even prevent stress. But honestly, is that really possible? When we work, have children, a social life etc., stress is on our daily meal plan.

Instead of looking at stress like at something that is haunting us and ruining our lives, we’re better off to consider it like something we can get a real boost from. If we look at it in the right way, it can be good for us. Of course, there is the “fight and flight” feeling in stressful situations, but we don’t have to fight and flight from it.

If we interpret the physical signs mentioned above (like pounding heart, faster breathing  etc.) not as “anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping very well with the pressure” (5:11), but instead as an energyzing of our body and that he was preparing us to meet the challenge. This is exactly what participants in a study at Harward University were told to do. “The pounding heart is preparing us to action, the faster breathing is not a problem but it’s getting more oxygen to our brain! “Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident” and the most fascinating finding: their physical stress response changed: see the explanation at 6:00 sgg on the speech).

The involvement of oxytocine (8:40 sg), which is also released when we hug someone. “When oxytocine is relaesed in the stress response, it is motivating us to seek support” (9:00 sgg). When life is difficult, our stress response whants us to be surrounded by people who care about us (9:30).

Knowing this side of stress helps us to be healthier because knowing that our oxytocine is released: it helps strengthen our heart. And all this is enhanced by social support. By reaching out to others when we are under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, we release more of this hormone, our stress response becomes healthier and we recover faster from stress.

Stress response has an inbuilt mechanism for stress resilience.

[youtube=] In this post I include some quotes from “Stress your friend

We can all try to get better at stress with Kelly McGonigal’s tips about how to change our distress into eustress, but if we are under constant pressure and stress, we really need to search for (professional) help. You can read more about what long term stress does to your body here, in order to recognize if your type of stress is already an illness or not and if you need more help with it. You can also download this free ebook about stress management.

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