Your Stress Won’t Kill You – But your Attitude about it Might

Worried and stressed young woman

Think about the last few weeks of your life. Have you been feeling stressed? Do you have a big event coming up that’s got you losing sleep or feeling panicked? We all feel stressed from time to time, but stress itself is not the enemy. Our beliefs about stress are the enemy.

Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist, and she’s written her book The Upside of Stress to correct one of the most important errors of her career. “Through all my training in psychology and medicine,” she writes, “I got one message loud and clear: stress is toxic.”

In many national media outlets, she says, “I gave the kind of stress-reduction advice you’ve probably heard a thousand times. Practice deep breathing, get more sleep, manage your time. And, of course, do whatever you can to reduce the stress in your life.” But now she’s changed her mind, and she wants to change yours.

Here’s what changed her mind. She writes: “In 1998, thirty thousand adults in the United States were asked how much stress they had experienced in the past year. They were also asked, Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?

Eight years later, the researchers scoured public records to find out who among the thirty thousand participants had died. Let me deliver the bad news first. High levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43 percent.

But—and this is what got my attention—that increased risk applied only to people who also believed that stress was harming their health. People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die.”

It’s not your stress that’s harming your health; it’s your attitude about stress that’s dangerous. Luckily, McGonigal says, you can quickly change your relationship to stress and become calmer, more resilient, and healthier.

She starts out by reporting that the most common reaction to stress has been, for years, erroneously identified as the body’s only reaction to stress.  The “fight or flight” response  – the surge of adrenaline and its aftermath – has been documented as the body’s primary reaction to any stressor. This reaction is a useful survival tool, left over from human history as cave dwellers looking for life-threatening dangers behind every rock.

But there aren’t many tigers lurking behind rocks in our modern world, so our fight or flight response is a dramatic overreaction. McGonigal writes: “…it worked out for our ancestors, but not for us. You, poor human, are crippled with a stress response that has little adaptive function in the modern world.”

The long-term effects of adrenaline and cortisol, another stress hormone, are well documented, and are definitely harmful. Elevated cortisol levels over extended periods is linked to interference with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease. Those things can kill you.

But you can choose a healthier response to the stress in your life. 

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