When Kelly McGonigal first told her audience that a belief in the harmful effects of stress — and not stress itself — was a serious health risk, many people laughed.
But by the end of her talk, most of them were willing to accept that a change in their perception of stress rather than the elimination of it could save them from a premature death.
McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University who gave a TED Talk last June that has racked up almost 4.8 million views on TED’s site and over a million views on TED’s YouTube page.
Her presentation, “How To Make Stress Your Friend,” draws on three recent studies that reveal how stress is a natural reaction to adversity, and if you stop becoming anxious about your stress, the body can naturally cope in a healthy way.
Here are the highlights:
In the first study McGonigal looked at, University of Wisconsin researchers tracked 30,000 American adults for eight years. They found that subjects with a lot of stress had a 43% increased risk of dying -- but only if they believed stress was harmful.
By extrapolating their data, the researchers estimated that a negative view of stress coupled with lots of it kills over 20,000 Americans each year. This would put it above skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide in this list.
In a second study from Harvard University, participants' hearts were monitored in times of induced stress. Most respondents showed restricted blood vessels (top circle), but those who were told stress was a 'helpful' reaction to a threat showed relaxed blood vessels (bottom circle).
When you're stressed, your pituitary gland releases oxytocin, a hormone that compels you to seek support. Oxytocin is also released when you hug someone.
Oxytocin is an anti-inflammatory that allows blood vessels to stay relaxed under stress. When oxytocin molecules react with the heart's receptors for this hormone, heart cells are compelled to regenerate, and thus recover from any stress-induced damage.
'Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience -- and that mechanism is human connection,' McGonigal said. In times of stress, she believes you should seek social contact and social support to boost your oxytocin levels.
Finally, McGonigal referenced a third study from the University of Buffalo that found that every major stressful life experience increased an adult's risk of death by 30% -- unless they also spent a significant amount of time helping loved ones and neighbours. Then, there was a 0% increase in risk of death. 'When you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience,' McGonigal said.
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