By Greer S. Kirshenbaum PhD
Decades of research have taught us that high levels of stress can damage our body, brain and mind. As a neuroscientist I spent years observing how long-lasting stress leads to physical illnesses like heart disease and obesity, changes in brain function and structure, and poor mental health like anxiety, depression and addiction. Given that most of us experience unavoidably high amounts of stress on a daily basis, this information can make us feel hopeless about our health, happiness and success. Fortunately I have some exciting research to share. It flips around the view that all stress is bad, and could make us feel better about our experience with stress. Amazingly, some new research shows that by changing our minds, specifically the way we understand and view stress, we can protect ourselves from the perils of stress. We need to start thinking that stress can be helpful.
Understanding that the stress response is necessary to accomplish tasks is the key to protecting ourselves from some negative effects of stress. Stress motivates us and drives us to overcome and meet the daily puzzles and demands of life. It mobilizes the muscles in our body and the circuits in our brain, so we can respond quickly and appropriately to life’s challenges. Without stress, we would not get much done, so we should actually be grateful for it. The physical sensations of stress, including increased heartbeat and breathing, narrow vision, racing thoughts and stomach butterflies prepare our body, brain and mind to respond to our environment. Next time you feel the sensations of stress, however unpleasant, think about how the response is helping you to meet the demands in your life. Understanding that stress is helpful and necessary can protect your body, and perhaps your brain and mind from being hurt by that same stress.
An exciting study measured the cardiovascular responses and cognition of people performing a stress-inducing test. One group was taught what we reviewed above; that the physical sensations of stress are not harmful and they have evolved to help us respond successfully to challenges. A second group was taught to ignore their feelings of stress and shift their visual attention to a neutral object. A third group got no instructions. Incredibly, the first group, who had the knowledge that you have now, showed the healthiest cardiovascular response and best cognitive performance during the stressful test. Knowing that stress can be positive benefited the performance of the heart and mind.
Another study looked at beliefs about stress and mortality. People who believed that stress was harmful and experienced high stress, had an increased chance of mortality. However, people who believed that stress was not harmful and experienced high stress did not have an increased chance of mortality. This is more evidence that the belief that stress is positive and adaptive can protect us from harm.
These studies are just the beginning of inquiry into this phenomenon. I am curious about what factors inform beliefs about stress being helpful or harmful. I wonder if an individuals’ lifetime experience with stress biases their view of stress. Take a minute to examine your own thoughts and influences; what are your ideas about stress and health and what has influenced them?
I also wonder if understanding that stress is helpful can impact mental health. If you are inclined to take up the challenge, and embrace stress as helpful, then notice if your mood changes over the next few months. Does this shift in thinking improve your life?
The idea, that if the mind views stress as helpful, it benefits the body, is a powerful example of the profound influence of the mind over the body. Once a crazy idea, we now see that our thoughts and perceptions physically change our brains and bodies. We are living in an astonishing time. Science continues to provide incredibly helpful and useful tools that can enhance our life and our health. So, remember, it really is mind over matter. Stay tuned for the next idea!
I got the idea for this article from a TED talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
Studies I mentioned
1) Jeremy P. Jamieson et al., “Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, August 2012
2) Abiola Keller et al., “Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality,” Health Psychology, September 2012