Stress is unavoidable in modern life, but it doesn’t have to get you down. Work, money and family all create daily stress, while bigger issues like politics and terrorism contribute to our underlying stress levels. But approach it the right way, and it won’t rule your life -- it can even be good for you. Here are ways to deal with stress, reduce its harm and even use your daily stress to make you stronger.
Stress is inevitable; getting sick from it is not.
THE PERCEPTION OF STRESS
While we know that stress is associated with health problems, plenty of people with high-stress lives are thriving. How is that possible? In 2012, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a seminal study looking at how 28,000 people perceived stress in their lives. People in the study answered these two questions:
1. During the past 12 months, would you say that you experienced:
- A lot of stress
- A moderate amount of stress
- Relatively little stress
- Almost no stress at all
2. How much effect has stress had on your health?
- A lot
- Hardly any
The researchers looked at death rates in the study group over nine years. The results are startling. The study found that having a lot of stress in your life was not linked with premature death. But having a lot of stress in your life and believing it was taking a toll on your health increased risk of premature death by 43 percent.
CHANGING YOUR PERCEPTION
With stress, the mind and the body are intrinsically linked. You can view stress as something that is wreaking havoc on your body (and it can) or as something that is giving you the strength and energy to overcome adversity. Here’s a quick way to think about these two very different views of stress. Read the statement, and then think about your own reaction to the biological changes that occur during times of stress.
1. When I’m stressed, my body releases adrenaline and cortisol. My heart is beating faster. This means that:
2. When I’m stressed, my stress response is causing my breathing rate to increase. This means that:
Common View: My fast breathing is a sign of anxiety. I worry about how stress is affecting my mental and physical health.
Alternative View: I should take a deep breath. My faster breathing means more oxygen is getting to my brain so I can think more clearly.
3. When I’m stressed, my heart and circulatory system respond, causing my blood pressure to rise. This means that:
Common View: I can feel my blood pressure rising. This can’t be good for my health.
Alternative View: Circulatory changes are allowing more oxygen and nutrients to fuel my muscles. I’m feeling stronger and ready for the challenge ahead.
It’s probably clear to you that the alternative view is the better choice for thinking about stress. It may be hard to believe that such a small shift in thinking could make a difference, but that’s what Harvard researchers found when they paid 50 study subjects $25 each to take part in a lab experiment designed to induce stress. The test involves giving a talk in front of a group of unfriendly evaluators, followed by a tricky word test. (Researchers have consistently found that this formula of public speaking plus testing in front of a hostile crowd is incredibly uncomfortable and stress-inducing for the poor people who agree to take part in the study.)
Before the social stress test, one group was allowed to play video games; another was taught to simply ignore stressful feelings if they experienced them during the test. But a third group was given advice similar to the quiz above. They got a primer about the physical stress response and were told how a higher heart rate, faster breathing and internal jitters were all tools for making you strong during a stressful event. They were told how the body’s stress response evolved to help us succeed, and that the increased arousal symptoms of stress can aid your performance during times of stress. The bottom line of the lesson was this: In a tough situation, stress make you stronger.
The group that learned to rethink the role of stress in their lives did far better on the test. They gave better speeches and were rated as more confident. They smiled more and had more-positive body language. And physiological indicators showed that their bodies were also managing the stress response better than those of test subjects who were taught to ignore stress or given no advice at all.
The Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has been a champion of rethinking stress, noting that the right approach can make you smarter and stronger. Her TED talk on the subject, “How To Make Stress Your Friend,” has been viewed 14 million times.
“What I learned from these studies, surveys and conversations truly changed the way I think about stress,” Dr. McGonigal wrote in her book “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”
About the Author
Tara Parker-Pope is the founding editor of Well, an award-winning consumer health site with news and features to help readers live well every day.
Illustrations by Sam Kalda