What do you believe about Stress?

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If you had to sum up how you feel about stress, which statement would be more accurate?

  1. Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced, and managed.
  2. Stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced.

Five years ago, I would have chosen A without a moment’s hesitation. I’m a health psychologist, and through all my training in psychology and medicine, I got one message loud and clear: Stress is toxic.

For years, as I taught classes and workshops, conducted research, and wrote articles and books, I took that message and ran with it. I told people that stress makes you sick; that it increases your risk of everything from the common cold to heart disease, depression, and addiction; and that it kills brain cells, damages your DNA, and makes you age faster. In media outlets ranging from theWashington Post to Martha Stewart Weddings, 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.

I turned stress into the enemy, and I wasn’t alone. I was just one of many psychologists, doctors, and scientists crusading against stress. Like them, I believed that it was a dangerous epidemic that had to be stopped.

But I’ve changed my mind about stress, and now I want to change yours.

Let me start by telling you about the shocking scientific finding that first made me rethink stress. 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. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those who reported experiencing very little stress.

The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people. It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health.

That number stopped me in my tracks. We’re talking over twenty thousand deaths a year! According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that would make “believing stress is bad for you” the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.

As you can imagine, this finding unnerved me. Here I was, spending all this time and energy convincing people that stress was bad for their health. I had completely taken for granted that this message—and my work—was helping people. But what if it wasn’t? Even if the techniques I was teaching for stress reduction—such as physical exercise, meditation, and social connection—were truly helpful, was I undermining their benefit by delivering them alongside the message that stress is toxic? Was it possible that in the name of stress management, I had been doing more harm than good?

I admit, I was tempted to pretend that I never saw that study. After all, it was just one study—and a correlational study at that! The researchers had looked at a wide range of factors that might explain the finding, including gender, race, ethnicity, age, education, income, work status, marital status, smoking, physical activity, chronic health condition, and health insurance. None of these things explained why stress beliefs interacted with stress levels to predict mortality.

However, the researchers hadn’t actually manipulated people’s beliefs about stress, so they couldn’t be sure that it was people’s beliefs that were killing them. Was it possible that people who believe that their stress is harmful have a different kind of stress in their lives—one that is, somehow, more toxic? Or perhaps they have personalities that make them particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of stress.

And yet, I couldn’t get the study out of my head. In the midst of my self-doubt, I also sensed an opportunity. I’d always told my psychology students at Stanford University that the most exciting kind of scientific finding is one that challenges how you think about yourself and the world. But then I found the tables were turned. Was I ready to have my own beliefs challenged?

The finding I had stumbled across—that stress is harmful only when you believe it is—offered me an opportunity to rethink what I was teaching. Even more, it was an invitation to rethink my own relationship to stress. Would I seize it? Or would I file away the paper and continue to crusade against stress?

First published at linkedin.com.

Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert on the mind-body relationship. She teaches for the School of Medicine's Health Improvement Program and is a senior teacher/consultant for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Her work demonstrates the applications of psychological science to personal health and happiness, as well as organizational success and social change.

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