According to new scientific studies, we can welcome stress (yes, welcome stress), if we change the way we think about stress. Here’s the surprise – our belief about stress is more important than we ever thought, and can literally mean the difference between revitalization and connection, and premature death. Yes, how we think about stress can be either a connector and uplifter or a huge negative that overwhelms us.
The new series of studies is being publicized through a recent TED talk by researcher and health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal of Stanford who confesses this evidence has reversed everything she now teaches about stress. What she found is that if we believe that stress is harmful and causes disastrous effects on our health—we’re right. However, if we see stress as an energizer that equips us to face our challenges, we’re also right. What’s more, if we change our view of stress, it actually makes us physiologically healthier and may protect us from dying early.
How can that happen? McGonigal quotes what science knows about one of the major hormones released during a stress reaction-oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone). Not only does oxytocin make us more apt to reach out to connect with other people, help others, hug more, and have more empathy and human connection – it actually is the same hormone that protects our heart from stress damage! We’d all be laughing at this as a ridiculous notion if it weren’t backed by three different double-blind controlled studies-including one done by Harvard University.
The new studies done in the area of stress show that when a person believes stress can have a beneficial effect, it does. In fact, the release of the oxytocin hormone helps override anxiety, stimulates us to rise to the occasion, and also prompts us to connect more with people we care about and who care about us – great advice for anyone. McGonigal also says we emerge with a sort of “biology of courage.” It transforms the stress message to “I can trust myself to handle life’s challenges.” In other words, we actually become more of the story we choose to tell ourselves – good or bad.
At first, it might be easy to dismiss all this as naïve positive thinking, but science argues otherwise. McGonigal concludes with an activist perspective: Instead of avoiding discomfort, chase after meaning and connection. Our hearts and our minds will love us for it.
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