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How To Make Stress Your Friend

How To Make Stress Your Friend

BY Michelle McQuaid

How often do you feel stressed? You know, those situations where you feel your stomach twisting into knots, your heart beat racing, a rush of blood to your head, and you feel the ‘fight or flight’ response taking over. It seems with the increasing demands on us at work and home stress has become part of our everyday lives. And with media headlines like “Stress Kills” or “Science Proves Stress Makes You Depressed”, it’s easy to understand why most of us become pretty anxious when we’re feeling stressed.   No wonder we want to avoid it.

For over a decade, Dr. Kelly McGonigal a health psychologist  from Stanford University had been warning people about the dangers of stress on your health. However, research over the last few years has given her a complete new outlook. Rather than seeing stress itself as the enemy, it appears it’s the way you think about stress that could be dangerous. And changing the way you think about and respond to stress – embracing it as an opportunity to stand up for what is important to you and reach out to others – can leave you feeling courageous and connected.

So is there more to stress than your ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ responses? Listen to this TedTalk by Kelly McGonigal to hear how science is finding why making stress your friend can make you happier and healthier.

What Will You Learn?

[1:20]   A study tracking 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years found that those who experienced a lot of stress and also believed that stress was harmful for their health had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But people who experienced a lot of stress and did not believe stress was harmful had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

[3:08]   This study suggests that changing the way you think about stress can change your body’s response to stress.

[5:12]    Research suggests if you view your body’s stress response as helpful for your performance, rather than as signs you are not coping well, you are likely to be less anxious, more confident, and your physical stress response may change.

[5:54]    Often a stress response means your heart rate increases and your blood vessels constrict. This is not healthy. But when you view your stress response as helpful, your blood vessels may stay relaxed and you heart maintains a healthier state, similar to what happens when you experience moments of joy and courage. So the new science of stress suggests that how you think about stress does matter.

[7:48]    Stress can also make you social through the release of the hormone – oxytocin. Known as the cuddle hormone it encourages you to reach out to family and friends to tell them how you feel, to be more compassionate for others, and be more willing to help and support the people you care about.

[9:32]    Oxytocin also protects and heals your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. And the more you reach out to others, either for support or to offer help, the more oxytocin you release, and the healthier your stress response will be.

[10:50]  Research has also found that spending time helping out friends, neighbors or people in your community can create resilience to the health risks of stress.

What Can You Try?

  • Tune into your stress mindset– becoming aware of your current stress mindset is the first step. To get to know your stress mindset, start to notice how you think and talk about stress. Because a mindset is like a filter that colors every experience, you’ll probably discover that you have a standard way of thinking and talking about stress. Notice what you think and say when you experience stress. And how do you respond when others around you talk about their stress?

This doesn’t mean naively changing your thinking and believing everything bad will turn into something good. Rather, it’s the ability to notice the opportunities for learning and growth as you try to cope with things that are difficult and challenging. Kelly encourages us to think of it as an exercise in being able to hold opposite perspectives at once – the ‘and’ rather than the ‘either/or’ – instead of an exercise in positive thinking.

  • Acknowledge your stress – when you experience stress notice it, and recognize it as a response to something you care about. What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you? Which part of the stress response do you need most right now? Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? Do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow? Even if it feels like your stress response is pushing you in one direction, focusing on how you want to respond can shift your biology to support you. What response would best reflect your values and your goals?
  • Focus on your resources –  when you experience a stressful situation reflect on when you have previously overcome similar challenges. What personal strengths did you use? What did you learn? Who did you reach out to for support? How can you use these resources to help you deal effectively with your current situation?  Trust yourself to handle the situation, and use it as a resource to reach out, connect and engage with life.

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