Long the anti-hero of fast-forward lives, researchers now believe stress can make you stronger, smarter and more successful, says Clodagh Finn.
TAKE a moment out of your too-busy, over-packed day to answer this simple question: if you had to sum up how you feel about stress, which statement would be more accurate?
a) Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced and managed.
b) Stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilised and embraced.
American health psychologist and stress-has-an-upside advocate Dr Kelly McGonigal admits that, like most harried members of the modern world, she was inclined towards ‘a’.
Stress, she told her clients for over a decade, was public enemy number one; a toxic silent killer that was to blame for everything from the common cold to heart disease, premature ageing, depression, and lots more besides.
However, seven years ago, Dr McGonigal changed her tune after making a startling discovery — stress is harmful only if you believe it to be so, according to ground-breaking research.
She swallowed her pride and admitted that what she had been telling people was wrong.
People sat up and took notice. In 2010, Forbes named her one of the 20 most inspiring women to follow on Twitter. Three years later, she did a TED talk explaining how to make stress your friend. An impressive eight million people have already listened to it.
Now, the Stanford University lecturer hopes to reach even more people with her new book, an inspiring read that charts the new science of stress.
But why should we change our minds about stress? The research which stopped Kelly McGonigal in her tracks was a study that followed 30,000 American adults over an eight-year period, from 1998 to 2006. It asked them how much stress they had experienced in the last year and if they thought it harmful to health.
With a note of irony, Dr McGonigal says: “The bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43%.”
But — and the story of stress is a story of those significant ‘buts’ — researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that those who also felt high levels of stress but didn’t believe it to be harmful were not only alive, but thriving.
Researchers looked at death rates among survey respondents and found those who felt stress — and, here’s the clincher, felt negatively about it — were much more likely to fall ill, and even die. However, those with a positive attitude to stress were least affected by it, even less so than those who said they felt almost no stress.
Since the game-changing research, study after study has found that stress isn’t always bad. However, to see for herself Kelly McGonigal went to the Behavioural Research Lab at Columbia University in New York and, under the supervision of psychologist Alia Crum, strapped herself into what she describes as ‘torture equipment’ to assess her physical reactions to a stressful mock interview.
Like those before her, Dr McGonigal was shown one of two videos: the first spelled out the negative impact of stress, while the second explained how stress, if embraced, could enhance your performance.
She was shown the stress-is-enhancing video before being put through her paces by interviewers who were instructed to criticise her no matter what she said.
“One finding blew me away,” she says. “The saliva I had drooled into the test tube provided a sample of two stress hormones: cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
“Cortisol suppresses some biological functions that are less important during stress, such as digestion, reproduction and growth. DHEA, however, helps your brain grow stronger from stress. It also counters some of the effects of cortisol.”
We need both of these hormones, but the ratio between the two can influence how they affect health in the long term: cortisol can impair the immune system and lead to depression but DHEA can reduce the risk of anxiety, heart-disease and other stress-related illnesses.
Psychologist Alia Crum found that people who saw the stress-is-good video still produced the same amount of cortisol but changing their perception of stress helped them to produce more DHEA which, in turn, helped them to offset the negative effects of stress.
It follows, Dr McGonigal says , how you view stress influences the way it affects your body.
For instance, she says, instead of thinking of the pounding heart, tense muscles and churning stomach as negative reactions, it helps to think that this is your body becoming energised and preparing to meet the challenge.
That’s all very well but how do you cope with the sweating palms and dry mouth when you have to make an important presentation at work?
When Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks asked hundreds of people that question, 91% said the best thing to do was to calm down.
She decided to experiment. Some were told to be calm while others were told to embrace the anxiety and feel excited and alive. The ‘excited and alive’ group performed better, according to the audience who said they were more persuasive, confident and competent.
“However,” says Dr McGonigal, “seeing the good in stress doesn’t require abandoning the awareness that, in some cases, stress is harmful. The mindset shift that matters is the one that allows you to hold a more balanced view of stress — to fear it less, to trust yourself to handle it and to use it as a resource for engaging with life.”
Research on stress has uncovered another startling finding — a 2012 study at the University of Freiburg suggests that stress makes you more social; it helps you to connect with others.
When stressed, the pituitary gland produces the happy hormone oxytocin. It’s been dubbed the ‘cuddle hormone’ because it fine-tunes the brain’s social instincts and prompts you to surround yourself with people who care.
“I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience — and that mechanism is human connection,” Dr McGonigal says.
She quotes another US study, conducted by researchers at the University at Buffalo over three years. It asked 1,000 adults (aged between 34 and 93) two questions: how much stress they had experienced in the last year and how much time they had spent helping neighbours.
It found that every major stressful experience increased the risk of dying by 30%. But — and here’s that ‘but’ again — people who spent time caring for others did not suffer the harmful effects of stress.
There’s more to report on the upside of stress. It can give meaning to life. In 2005-6, researchers Gallup World Poll asked people from 121 countries about their experience of stress. Those who felt a great deal of stress also reported being more satisfied with their health, work standard of living, and community.
Dr McGonigal calls this the stress paradox. “High levels of stress are associated with both distress and well-being. Happy lives are not stress-free, nor does a stress-free life guarantee happiness. Even though most people view stress as harmful, higher levels of stress seem to go along with things we want: love, health and satisfaction with our lives.”
Perhaps the worst thing that a person can believe about stress is that you can avoid it.
Dr McGonigal explains: “I’ve come to believe that the most harmful belief is that stress can be avoided. We’re clinging to this — understandably attractive — myth that some day our lives could be stress-free if only we take the right pill, or buy the right bubble bath, or finally make time to meditate.
“None of those stress reduction strategies will get rid of your stress. And being unable to eliminate stress becomes one more thing to beat ourselves up about.”
The secret, then, is to do what seems counterintuitive: embrace your stress and learn how to harness it to become happier, healthier and more successful.
The Upside of Stress by Dr Kelly McGonigal is published by Vermilion, €19.50
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