Yes, it’s true—you just need to have the right mind-set…
When it comes to protecting your health, stress is one of your fiercest enemies. It can raise your blood pressure and risk for heart disease…give you headaches and muscle pain…and worsen your diabetes and digestive problems—to name just a few of its ill effects. But what if that’s only one side of the story?
Recent shift in thinking: There is now compelling evidence that stress can actually help you protect your health…make you more effective at work…strengthen your relationships…and propel you toward a more meaningful life.
If that all sounds like an outright fantasy, consider this: In a recent study published in the journal Health Psychology, researchers who followed 30,000 Americans for eight years found that risk for death from any cause rose by 43% among participants who had high levels of stress.
But here’s the important part—that number applied only to people who believed that the stress they were experiencing was bad for their health. Study participants who reported similar levels of stress but did not consider it to be bad for their health had survival rates that were actually better than those of people with relatively stress-free lives.
CHECK YOUR MIND-SET
Our highly negative beliefs and expectations regarding stress—our “mind-set”—has been built up over years of cautionary advice about its dire physical and mental health consequences.
What we’re now seeing, however, is that this mind-set becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear of stress—fueled by all those ominous warnings about its negative effects—magnifies your aroused state. You may even try to soothe the discomfort with too much alcohol, cigarettes and/or bad-for-you comfort food. Couple these negative coping mechanisms with the body’s hyperaroused state, and you’ve set the stage for the chronic health problems that are commonly linked to stress.
What works better: To help protect your health, aim for a positive mind-set that views stress as a challenge rather than a looming threat.
A NEW WAY OF THINKING
To shift your mind-set about stress, try the exercises below (they may seem simplistic, but they really do make a difference)…
• Get fired up! When your palms sweat and you feel the jitters before a demanding situation—say, a presentation at work—tell yourself that you’re excited rather than stressed. Remind yourself that you’re tapping reserves of extra power that will help you think faster and concentrate better.
Helpful: Listen to your favorite “go get ’em” music on your smartphone before an important meeting, difficult negotiation or big presentation. Good choices: The theme from Rocky…the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth…or the theme song from Chariots of Fire. Or simply say the phrase “I’m excited” out loud. When anxious participants said this phrase once out loud to the leader of a Harvard study, it helped them perform better under pressure.
• Help someone out. Connecting with others can ease our stressful experiences, but going a step further has been shown to actually help protect your health.
Important finding: In a study of 1,000 people, researchers from the University at Buffalo found that highly stressful life events, such as divorce, job loss or the death of a loved one, significantly increased the risk for health problems, such as back pain, diabetes, cancer and heart disease—except in people who spent substantial time helping friends, neighbors and family. Among those who spent time giving back, there was no association between stressful life events and health problems.
This protective effect may be rooted in our biology. The body’s stress response not only releases “prepare-to-act” adrenaline, but also oxytocin, the pro-social hormone that promotes bonding and affection.
To transform stress from a negative to a positive, stay (or get) involved in community or volunteer projects. I like to call this the “tend-and-befriend” strategy. Even small gestures count: Open the door for someone carrying packages…and give sincere thanks to a salesperson you normally take for granted.
If your stress is rooted in the fact that many people rely on you or perhaps that you are caring for someone with a serious illness, see below.
• Look for deeper meaning. After stressful events, such as an illness that affects you or a loved one, an accident or a work or relationship crisis, part of us struggles to find meaning in what happened. Perhaps stress allowed you to uncover unexpected sources of strength within yourself or other areas of potential personal growth.
With time, if you look hard enough, you may realize that the stressful event helped you find insights about what you can do next time to make things turn out better…learn compassion for the suffering of others…and even increase your appreciation of life itself.
This does not mean adopting a “Pollyanna” attitude that requires you to be grateful for losses and calamities. It means accepting the reality of life and asking yourself, whatever the circumstances—Did I gain anything from this? What have I learned?
Remembering the good that came from these stressful events will help prepare you for the next ones.
How do you define stress?
Instead of viewing stress as a dreaded and harmful physical and/or mental reaction to tough situations, you’ll feel a greater sense of control if you think of it in more neutral terms—as simply your body’s response when something you care about is at stake.
Try to see that pounding heart or quickened breathing that you’re feeling as your body’s way of heightening your senses so that you are mentally focused and motivated to do well.