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Stress isn’t killing you after all

New research is finding that stress, when viewed as a helpful response to life’s challenges, can actually be good for you.

Stressed woman

Imagine your alarm went off late. And of all days, today was your interview for that big promotion, and you are now running 30 minutes behind. Yikes! Your heart is pounding. You begin to breathe heavily. Maybe you begin to sweat, shake and panic. You believe this means you are anxious and you’re scared. The pressure is on.

Now let’s look at the situation a little differently. You still woke up late and have to rush to that same important interview. You’re nervous, so of course your heart pounds. It is preparing you for action. Your breathing is still rapid. This is your body’s way of ensuring you get plenty of oxygen. Your body is preparing itself for optimum performance by doing this. You are energized. Your body is ready to tackle anything.

Change your mind about stress and change your body’s response to stress

What is happening to your body in each of these scenarios? Clearly, you are stressed in both situations. In the first situation, where you felt anxious and scared because of the stress, your body went through the typical stress response. Your heart rate went up, and your blood vessels constricted. This is not a healthy state for your body to be in. In fact, people are at a much higher risk for cardiovascular disease when their blood vessels constrict; it makes your body work harder to get blood flowing. This is why chronic stress and heart problems are so closely related.

In the second scenario, you were a lot more positive about the situation. You still showed evidence of stress through a pounding heart and rapid breathing, but you viewed it as a good thing. You viewed it as your body’s way of preparing you to function at your best. As in the first situation, your heart rate still went up. But because your view of stress as a positive mechanism of preparing your body for action actually prevented your blood vessels from constricting. This is the similar response your body goes through in moments of courage and joy.

Feeling joyous and courageous is clearly a good state to be in. So when you view stress as a good thing, are you actually improving your health?

New research says yes. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal analyzed a study that looked at 30,000 adults in the U.S. for eight years. Participants were asked how much stress they’ve experienced in the past year. They were also asked if they believed stress is harmful to their health. The results? People who experienced stress had a 43 percent increase in their likelihood of dying — but only if they also believed that stress is bad for their health. Participants who experienced stress but looked at it as a good thing were no more likely to die than those who experienced no stress. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of everyone from the study. This really shows that how you think about stress makes a huge difference.

Other ways that stress is helping you

Let’s take a closer look at the stress response. Oxytocin is a neurohormone that is released during stress. It is also released when you hug someone. Let me explain: Oxytocin can be thought of as the social hormone, because it makes your brain crave social interaction and do things to build strong relationships.

As part of the stress response, it urges you to seek support from loved ones and talk about your stress; oxytocin keeps you from bottling up your stress. It also responds to receptors on the heart during stress that help the heart recover from stress faster. Even more good news? Social support actually enhances the effects of oxytocin. So the hormone that makes you seek support will be enhanced by said support. This basically means your body has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience. I don’t know about you, but this is definitely helping me view stress as a good thing.

Another study was done on 1,000 adults ages 34 to 93. Again, they were asked how much stress they’ve experienced in the last year, and also asked how much they have spent helping and caring for friends and families. People who experienced more stress had a 30 percent increase in likelihood of dying — if they had not spent time caring for others. People who did spend time caring for others had absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. This shows that caring for others increases your body’s ability to avoid the harmful effects of stress.

Change your mindset about stress and make stress actually benefit your health. Spend time caring for others, strengthen your relationships and show empathy, and avoid the harmful effects of stress.

More on stress

10 Weird ways to reduce stress
Survey says: You spend 2,000 hours stressed out each year
How stress distorts your self-image and ways to break the vicious cycle

Photo credit: MIXA/Getty Images

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