Take Two #104: Stress Saves Lives

By Kyra-lin Hom

Happy post-turkey day, everyone! I hope your Thanksgivings were satisfying and that Black Friday found you well rested and untrampled. Have you seen the videos on Youtube yet? I don’t think anything about a DVD player could ever get me that excited. I know the average American gains two pounds on Thanksgiving and keeps it, but there has got to be a better weight loss plan than aisle mobbing.

Oh wait, you didn’t know that about weight gain and Thanksgiving? It’s okay, don’t stress – or do stress actually. It turns out that stress isn’t quite the devil we’ve made it out to be. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal (yes, that name really exists outside of the Harry Potter verse) explains in a recent Ted Talk that stress is apparently only bad for you if you think it is.

One of the major studies (but not the only one) backing this new theory involved 30,000 average American adults and 8 years of public death records. These 30,000 individuals were all asked a) how much stress had they experienced over the last year; and b) if they believed stress was harmful to their health.

What were the findings after 8 years? Those who had experienced a high level of stress were 43% more likely to have died, but this only applied to those who believed stress was harmful. Those who experienced a high level of stress but believed that stress was not harmful actually had the lowest likelihood of death. Weird, huh?

Not only is stress not the boogeyman, it actually comes bearing gifts. We all know about the stress hormone adrenaline, the fight or flight response. And we have all likely at least heard of oxytocin, otherwise known as the love or cuddle hormone. What you probably didn’t know is that they are actually both stress hormones. Both adrenaline and oxytocin are produced naturally as part of the human stress response. That urge to seek comfort in others during times of stress is absolutely, 100% human.

Instead of clamping down on your blood vessels and pushing you in the direction of early cardiac arrest – what we’re used to associating with stress – oxytocin actually protects your cardiovascular system. Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory that keeps your blood vessels wide open and heals your overworked heart. Yes, I did just say that the love hormone heals your heart. Let loose all of your oh’s and awe’s now.

So where does belief come into play? Believing stress is harmful turns it into anxiety, which can become chronic anxiety. This definitely constricts all those blood vessels and does exactly what we’ve accused stress of doing all along. But alternatively, believing that stress is your body preparing for positive action negates that conditioned anxiety response. The result is something that looks very chemically similar to joy or courage. Thank you oxytocin.

Guess what else? The more you embrace that oxytocin-induced impulse of caring for others and allowing others to care for you, the more oxytocin you produce and the healthier your body’s stress response becomes. Caring for others can even undo the damage caused by stress.

See, stress isn’t designed to kill us – the exact opposite, in fact. Stress is meant to save our lives, coming in short necessary boosts when FUBAR strikes. Dwelling in the stress and quite literally suffering over our suffering is an entirely fruitless human invention.

Instead of treating stress like the enemy, we should treat it like an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to rise above the occasion and an opportunity to connect with those around you. Learning how to welcome stress could just save your life.

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