If you surveyed a room full of Americans, basically no one would say stress is good. Quite the contrary, ever piece of literature aimed at the population promising a better quality of life says to avoid stress at all costs because of its association with a host of physical ailments like migraines, acid reflux, high blood pressure, and often fatal heart attacks. (Not to mention it’s just a pain to deal with on an emotional level.) The U.S.’s ironic hatred of stress is so ingrained in our society it even infiltrates our idioms. For example:
“Don’t stress it.”
“Don’t stress. Just do your best!”
So what if new research said it’s not stress which is unhealthy but the belief of stress being unhealthy is what’s… well, unhealthy? In fact, what if stress turned out to actually be healthy? Kelly McGonigal speaks about this in her TED Talk, citing several studies claiming just so.
She first discusses statistics from a study which surveyed a population on two questions. First, how much stress the individual had been under in the past year. Second, whether or not he or she believed stress was a bad thing. After a few years, the researchers returned and tallied which categories had the most premature deaths. As expected by most, 43% of those who reported having a high amount of stress died; however, the none of the 43% said they thought stress was good. On the same tangent, this means approximately 182 000 people each year die from not stress itself but from the belief that stress is bad.
These conclusions are supported by another study McGonigal brings up in which two groups were formed. One group was briefed about the biological benefits of stress–for instance, the increased blood flow and oxygen make responding to stimuli easier–and the other was not. Those left in the dark about stress’ function did worse on stress tests than those who were informed, displaying some psychological component is in play. Additionally, those who were not informed had inflated blood vessels. Over time, these blood vessels pose a danger for heart problems. The blood vessels of the informed group, however, showed the same characteristics as when a person is happy or feeling particularly courageous. Again, this ties the biological component back into the psychological one.
The last point McGonigal brings up is how our body stress response not only produce adrenaline and cortisol but also releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurohormone (so glad I discovered it’s a word!) which increases our social instincts. It causes you to get cozy with others, both emotionally and physically, which should hypothetically result in an exchange of feelings. It’s when you vent to a good friend, for instance.
Oxytocin also results in increased empathy, or compassion. On the same note, those who reported more altruistic activity, meaning more oxytocin, were less likely to suffer premature death or other stress induced illnesses than those who didn’t. This could be because oxytocin also has anti-inflammatory properties which negate the parts of the stress reflex which damage the cardiovascular system. From an evolutionary perspective, I could see this being a beneficial attribute since altruism is key in maintaining a healthy social order. It’s also maybe responsible for why people who suffer through rough situations like natural disaster or war emerge with a close-knit sense of solidarity.
I see all of this as being reasonable because of the above; however, I haven’t actually read any of the research, so I suppose there’s always room for misinterpretation.
As for trusting the speaker, McGonical is a renowned life psychologist who has penned many books on mindful living, received her Ph.D. from Stanford, and is a reference for a large percent of the nation’s news media. I’d trust her to give an accurate presentation.
All this being said, I can take some tips from her since–I’ll be the first to say it–I’m awful at mindful living. For one, whenever I encounter a stressful situation, I should remind myself of this video. Knowing stress has a purpose is comforting to some degree psychologically and physically. \
Honestly, this was one of my favorite assignments!
Griffin, R. M., & Goldberg, J., MD. (n.d.). 10 Problems Related to Stress That You Can Fix. Retrieved May 12, 2016, from http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems
Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend [Video file]. (2013, June). Retrieved May 12, 2016, from http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend?language=en#t-793559