Stress is nothing to stress about

By Malak Habbak

If you’ve read articles about stress management, this isn’t one of them. This is a story about redemption. It’s about transforming the way people typically think about stress, a horned enemy, into a friend. It’s also based on Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s viral 2013 TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”

Now the reason I’m retelling this story today is because despite the abundance of books, articles, videos and shows about stress management, you’d think people would cope better with stress.

But the American Psychological Association reported in February that while on average stress levels are declining, Americans have higher stress levels than what is believed to be healthy. Forty-two percent report lying awake, 36 percent report overeating or eating unhealthy foods and 27 percent report skipping meals because of it.

The reason I’m calling for a truce is because although stress may be one of the biggest problems facing mankind, it’s our perception of stress that is the real problem.

In a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin that tracked 30,000 adults over eight years, researchers found that those who think of stress as harmful to their health had a 43 percent increased risk of dying.

About 182,000 Americans died prematurely from the belief that stress is bad for you. That would make stress the top 15th cause of death in the United States. Meanwhile, those who experienced stress but didn’t view it as harmful were least likely to die ” in fact, they had the lowest risk of dying.

As you can imagine, having the perception that stress is bad for one’s health is a problem in itself and the role cognition plays often exacerbate the effects of stress.

Cal Poly Pomona Psychology Professor and therapist Erika DeJonghe once explained that when we experience natural bodily responses to stressors ” such as heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, dizziness and sweating ” we often respond by worsening the situation with thoughts like “I am dying” or “I am going crazy.”

These thoughts intensify the situation as they increase those sensations, heightening the stress response and debilitating the body.

When I fell prey to such thoughts, I blamed stress for keeping me up at night and threatening my happiness and health. Ironically, I was giving my stress more power.

But imagine if you viewed these body responses as signs that your body is doing you a favor by preparing you to meet a challenge and keep you energized. That’s what participants were taught in a study conducted at Harvard University. They heard a pounding heart that prepared them for action and fast breathing that got more oxygen to their brain.

Reframing the narrative isn’t just a mind trick.

When adrenaline and cortisol (two hormonal byproducts of stress) boost one’s heart rate, blood pressure, energy supplies and sugar, they’re allowing the body to enhance its performance under pressure.

Another byproduct, oxytocin, strengthens your heart by helping heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. Oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone, causes you to crave physical contact, enhances empathy and makes you willing to help and support others.

Stress isn’t the enemy. It’s a friend that is calling on you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it all up.

The results of the study revealed that participants that viewed the stress response as helpful were less stressed, less anxious and more confident. They physically altered their stress response.

Usually, a stress response causes an increase in heart rate and constriction of blood vessels, but these responses were similar to that which is experienced in moments of joy and courage with relaxed blood vessels and a healthier cardiovascular response.

If you’re looking for a longer, healthier life, open your arms and welcome stress as a friend.

Intern

Sungah Choi / The Poly Post

Intern

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