Do we have more power over our stress levels than we realise? According to psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal, yes...
While the harmful effects of stress on our health cannot be disputed, Dr McGonigal’s thought-provoking TED talk, ‘How To Make Stress Your Friend’ made us question whether changing our mindset could go some way in reducing its threat. In fact, according to Dr McGonigal stress can prove to be one of our most powerful assets to draw from in tough situations and even be good for our health. According to some persuasive findings, it all comes down to how we view it. “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier?” she asks. “The science says yes. When you change your mind about stress, you change your body’s response to stress.”
The studies make for an impressive read and so we asked a trio of Get The Gloss Experts for their advice when it comes to taking the findings from lecture to life. The stats are so convincing that even Dr McGonigal, a former anti-stress advocate had to concede, “I have over a decade of demonising stress to redeem myself from.”
Here’s how to start seeing stress in a whole new light.
The perception of stress is the problem
According to Dr McGonigal, the way we view stress could hold the key to how our body reacts to it. Her first basis for this argument stems from a study conducted on 30,000 adults in the US for 8 years which revealed that although people who experienced a lot of stress had a 43% increased chance of dying, it was only true for those who thought stress was harmful to their health.
In another study conducted by Harvard University, participants who were taught to view their stress responses as helpful rather than harmful before a social stress test were shown to be less stressed out, less anxious and more confident. What interested Dr McGonigal in particular though, was the effect on their physical stress responses.
Upon viewing stress positively, the participants’ blood vessels were seen to relax rather than constrict, resulting in healthier cardiovascular profiles. “[The heart] actually looked like it does in moments of joy and courage,” commented Dr McGonigal. “Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at the age of 50 and living well into your 90s. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.”
Stress can make you more social
Yes we know, it's hard to believe right? After a stressful day, the prospect of being social couldn’t be further from our minds. However, it appears we could actually be hormonally hardwired to seek out human interaction in stressful times, making us into more caring and supportive individuals. The hormone responsible? Oxytocin, aka ‘the cuddle hormone,’ which also seems to moonlight as a stress hormone in its spare time too.
“Your pituitary gland pumps it out as part of the stress response,” says Dr McGonigal. “It’s as just about your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it’s motivating you to seek support.”
Interestingly, the increase in oxytocin levels was found to also actually help improve heart health too. “The heart has receptors for this hormone and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage,” explains Dr McGonigal. “All these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress - either to seek response or help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier and you actually recover faster from stress.”
She further adds, “Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience. And that mechanism is human connection.”
Additionally, it was also shown that human interaction can strengthen our defences against the harmful effects of stress too and better equip us to deal with stress more effectively. A study conducted on a thousand people aged between 35 and 93 in the States found that those who spent time caring for those in their communities and had suffered a financial or family crisis, had no stress-related increase in their risk of dying compared to those who had not taken an active part in looking after others.
“So we see once again that the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable,” comments Dr McGonigal. “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 a biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress you can create resilience.”
Stress can bring about change
Stress can also act as the extra push we may need to recognise that something needs to change and motivate us to take proactive steps. “Stress is a great leveller,” says Clinical Hypnotherapist, Life Coach and Get The Gloss Expert Jacqueline Hurst . “Noticing that you are ‘stressed’ can be fantastic because it’s a signal that you can either carry on doing what you are doing and getting the same results or that something is in need of change. I think the best way to look at stress being good for you is that it is simply a signal for change.”
Stress can give you purpose
“Rather than being a sign that something is wrong with your life, feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in personally meaningful relationships and activities,” says psychologist and Get The Gloss Expert Elaine Slater . “Recent studies show that people with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.”
It could also provide the perfect opportunity to gain a stronger sense of self and work on our own personal development. “Viewing stress in our personal relationships, in our professional lives and with our finances as an opportunity to grow and learn creates a deeper understanding and awareness of how our lives are operating and progressing. Attempt to tackle the underlying cause of stress – for example ‘what is the purpose behind this stressful argument?’ This in turn will increase self-awareness and promote emotionally intelligent dialogue,” recommends Elaine.
It starts with a thought
Changing a lifetime of seeing stress as the enemy can seem somewhat overwhelming, however according to Jacqueline Hurst it needn’t be if we take it one stressful thought at a time. “Stress is a feeling created by a thought. If we are thinking incorrectly we are ultimately creating stress,” she says. “It is important to start thinking about what you are thinking about. Are you looking at the ‘situation’ in a way that creates negativity, fear, anxiety etc.? If so, you need to turn that right around and fast!
“We teach all our students at The Life Class how to think correctly and that’s why we set it up. We were never taught how to ‘think’ or deal with our ‘emotions’ at school and this is so important to understand fully in today’s world that your thoughts create how you feel. It’s simple when you know how.”
1. “Start by writing down your thoughts - get it out of your head and onto paper.”
2. “If the thought is creating stress, ask yourself:”
a) “How can this stress help me?”
b) “What is this stress teaching me?”
c) “What am I meant to be learning from this stress?”
d) “How can I use this in a positive way?”
e) “Think about my role model - what would they do?”
f) “Find a new thought that helps lessen the stress for a more positive action and outcome.”
Stress can help your career
Challenging our perception of stress is key for not allowing workplace pressures to weigh us down, explains Career Coach and Get The Gloss Expert Anna Percy-Davis . “If you can view stress in the workplace as something that keeps you sharp and motivated this will help,” she explains. “Stress keeps us progressing and tends to go hand in hand with achievement. It is about working out what the optimal level of stress is for you. If you are having too many speed wobbles, it is time to draw breath and work out how to either change your perception of stress or change your workload.
“So just remember stress in itself is not necessarily bad for you but your perception of stress can be,” she adds. “It is not always easy to change your perception of stress but will be worth the effort as your life will be a whole lot more enjoyable if you do.”