Is Stress Harmful? It’s All in the Way You Think About It


By Gene Gincherman, MD

Whether you’re stuck in a traffic jam, racing to meet a tough deadline at work, or going through a divorce, you can be sure of one thing: Life is full of stressors, both large and small. Most of us know that stress can harm us physically as well as psychologically. Stress has been linked to heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, skin problems, obesity, and depression. It’s easy to conclude that eliminating as much stress as possible is critical to staying healthy.

But not all stress is bad. In small doses, stress – the physical and psychological response to something perceived to be taxing or threatening – can be empowering. The body has what is known as the “fight or flight” response to immediate stress, such as when you have a case of stage fright. During this response, your body releases hormones, your breathing quickens, and your heart beats faster. The purpose of this response is to give you the energy to either meet the challenge you’re facing or flee quickly from it. This is the body doing its best to help you, and it’s usually followed by a feeling of relaxation once the threat has passed.

Stress earns its bad rap when it’s chronic. Humans were not meant to be in a state of fight or flight all the time. When it’s ongoing or too frequent, stress can tax your heart and immune system, interfere with your sleep, and exhaust your emotional resources.

But there’s more: Researchers are finding that it’s not only the amount of stress in people’s lives that matters, but how you think about it. In her book, “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It,” Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites a 2012 study from the University of Wisconsin that surveyed people on their stress levels and how they felt stress affected their health, and then tracked those patients over eight years. Researchers found that people were at an increased risk of dying when they had a lot of stress in their lives – but only when that stress was coupled with the belief that the stress was harmful. The people who reported a lot of stress in their lives but did not think it was harmful had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study – even less than those who did not have much stress at all.

Moreover, a study from Harvard University monitored people’s hearts during times of stress. Most people’s blood vessels were restricted, as is typical during stress, which is one reason stress is associated with cardiovascular disease. But for people in the study who had been taught that their stress response was a good and helpful thing, the blood vessels were dilated. Their perception of stress had actually changed the body’s physical response to it.

How you think about stress matters. This suggests that it can be beneficial to approach stress and health holistically. To be sure, a holistic approach is not a denial of the fact that stress can be harmful. But given that stress is a fact of life, trying some more positive ways of approaching it can only be helpful.

Change your mindset

Remember that your body’s response to stress is designed to help you, not hurt you. Know that everyone faces stress because it is part of the human condition. Remember also that stress is something you’ve dealt with many times before. You handled it before; you will do it again. And from each stressful experience, you can learn and grow. In this way, going through stress can add meaning to your life.

Reach out to people

Human connection is healthy, physically and emotionally. Most people don’t realize that oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” because levels of it increase when you hug someone, is also released during stress. It’s an anti-inflammatory that helps blood vessels stay relaxed and heart cells regenerate – protecting you from the effects of stress. It also helps motivate you to seek human contact, during which you will produce more oxytocin that will continue to build your resilience to possible negative effects of stress.

Connecting with other people is important for other health reasons as well. It’s so important that former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy cites loneliness as a public health problem. It can reduce a person’s lifespan by as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is associated with heart disease, depression, anxiety, and dementia. So call a friend, make small talk with strangers, throw a dinner party, give hugs. Your body wants you to. Especially your heart.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness – the practice of focusing on the moment and accepting your feelings and thoughts without judgment – can help put you in a calmer mental state to handle pressure. It can help you take a step back from your thoughts and pause before reacting to a stressful situation. It can also help you feel more compassion for other people, and compassion has also been found to lessen the body’s stress response. Meditation and yoga are two good ways to help you get into a mindful state.

Take care of other people

A study from the University of Buffalo surveyed 1,000 people about their stress levels as well as how much time they had spent helping others and then tracked who died within five years. They found that each major stressful experience increased the risk of death by 30 percent – except for people who spent time helping or taking care of other people. For those people, there was no stress-related increased risk of death at all.

Helping friends and loved ones is good for you, body and soul, even when you are under stress.

Laugh and cry

The idea that having a good cry will make you feel better is supported by science. Tears contain stress hormones. The act of crying converts your stress into something tangible, and in doing so, helps you release some of it. And there’s a reason they say laughter is the best medicine. It causes you to take in oxygen and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Then, when you’ve finished laughing and cool down, you’re left with that pleasantly relaxed feeling. It’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable way to manage your stress.

For more on managing stress, visit MAPMG’s Staying Healthy pages. Find out more about the work of Kelly McGonigal by watching her TED Talk.

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