Stress is a path to courage and compassion
Everyone knows that “stress kills.” Stress has been blamed for physical weakness as simple as the common cold and as serious as cardio vascular disease. We believe that this is true because that’s what we’ve been told and the connection seems so obvious. In fact, medical tests have shown that a person experiencing high stress actually manifests a severe restriction in the diameter of blood vessels restricting the flow of blood and causing excessive wear with eventual damage to the heart.
But the recent results of a 1998 medical study of 30,000 adults has produced a different viewpoint on stress. This is much like looking at two mountain peaks without knowing what actually lies between them. One can see Mountain A, the reality of stress, and Mountain B, the reality of physical harm to those experiencing stress, and assume a full knowledge of what exists between point A and point B, wrongly.
The result of that 1998 study changed the mindset and behavior of self-appointed stress crusader, Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Her recent book, The Upside of Stress, focuses on how stress can actually be good for you and how to get good at handling stress. Still a stress crusader, McGonigal has switched sides, encouraging others to do the same. Telling people that “stress kills,” can be very stressful for those struggling to not get stressed.
In the study, participants were asked two significant questions. 1) how much stress have you experienced in the last year; and 2) do you believe that stress is harmful to one’s health. The second question was the key factor that brought about the great change in perspective on stress. (15 minute presentation on TED by Kelly McGonigal).
Abigail Wise, in her article, 5 Simple Tricks to Make Stress Good for You, notes McGonigal’s explanation in her book:
“High levels of stress increased participants’ risk of dying by 43 percent, but the risk only applied to people who also thought that their stressful lives were harming their health. Those who reported stress, but did not feel it was hurting them, actually had the lowest risk of death of any in the study—even lower than those who reported less stressful lives.”
Wise goes on to apply the concept to practical issues like parenting worries or work anxieties. She then provides some simple thought processes to help encourage one’s skills in handling stress from this new perspective.
- Reframe your anxiety as energy – the typical indicators of stress (sweating, heart pounding, and that adrenaline rush) are signs that your body is working for you to keep you alert, strong and fully engaged. These indicators need not be harmful, and will produce positive result unless you believe otherwise.
- Remind yourself that you’re not alone – the reflection that all people have similar feelings enables a brief moment of reflection to take a breath and realize your connection with all other people around you.
- Refocus on helping others – by turning away from morbid introspection to the needs of others you can refuse to indulge in the anger and worry that fuel the negative impact of stress and gain a boost from helping others.
- Recognize how others deal with stress – by helping others to think differently about their stress from your more objective perspective, you indirectly teach yourself how to do the same when it is your turn.
- Reflect on your growth – be willing to be satisfied with small consistent steps of progress rather than to demand immediate and complete success. Reflection does lead to growth when you accept who you are and how you have progressed.
You might be tempted at this point to think of this “new study” as one more unwarranted pendulum swing in the ever changing landscape of what is good for you, whether foods and diets, or attitudes and behaviors.
“McGonigal admitted that she was tempted to pretend she never saw that study, However, she had taught her psychology students at Stanford University that the most exciting kind of scientific study is one that challenges how you think about yourself and the world. And this study did just that for her. So she began to see this as opportunity to rethink what she believed and taught, and her own relationship to stress. ” [CEO800read’s book review of McGonigal’s book].
One final connection McGonigal makes in her book is the connection between the response to stress and the result of courage and compassion. Thinking differently actually removes stress. That is the starting point. Applying your new perspective to specific situations is the next step. This is what is often called, “Where the rubber meets the road.” Or, “Think, then do.”
As you experience the signs normally associated with stress, think of them as signs indicating your body being energized – prepared for the task at hand. The pounding heart, faster breathing, sweating and cooling of the body, are what you might experience when encountering great joy – without the blood vessels constricting – simply by identifying the physical signs not as stress but as preparation to accomplish, to succeed.
When you encounter stress correctly, McGonigal points out, the hormone oxytocin is released in your body. Oxytocin is a neural hormone released, for example on hugging, to strengthen close relationships. This hormone is what keeps the blood vessels from constricting.
You might think of your stress response as an opportunity for stress reduction through a focus on other people and how they feel rather than yourself. Caring for others creates resilience.
It is amazing that what you believe can make a difference in how your body responds and so improve your overall actions. Stressful job? Choose to create meaning, not to reduce the stress.
When stress comes, how you think changes your stress response. You have the opportunity, by your response to stress, to create courageous and compassionate resilience. Stress gives an otherwise unavailable connection to the heart, resulting in a healthy ability to be strong and caring.