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Is stress your friend or foe?

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We decided to “cut the cord” and get rid of satellite TV last week, so we got a TiVo unit to be able to record programs on our over-the-air channels. (I can live without satellite or cable… but DVR?!)

What does that have to do with stress? Well, saving money is always a good way to reduce stress, but I’m writing this post because the TiVo’s built-in TED channel allowed me to watch Kelly McGonigal’s talk on “How to make stress your friend” on TV Friday night. As it turns out, between my wife recovering from a kidney transplant, trying to keep up with a 4-year-old, and running a small business and taking care of clients, “stress” happens to be a rather relevant topic here.

Kelly’s talk is a good one, and I encourage you to join over 4.7 million other people have watched it so far:

In the talk, Kelly references a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years. In that study, they started by asking people, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” And along with that question, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then they used public death records to find out who died.

People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. Not a huge surprise. We’ve all heard that stress is bad for us. Stress makes you sick. Stress can kill you. (And so on.)

But here’s the fascinating thing: Not all people who experienced a lot of stress had an increased risk of dying. That increased risk only applied to people who believed that stress is harmful for your health.

People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

In other words, based on this study, the blanket statement that “stress is bad for you” is not true. It’s actually stress combined with believing stress is bad for you that is harmful.

So if you’re frequently stressed and you’re thinking, “This is going to kill me,” well… statistics say that’s not a good idea!

But if, when you feel stressed and you notice your heart is pounding, you’re breathing faster, and you’re breaking into a sweat, you choose to think something like, “My body is energized and my brain is getting more oxygen so I’ll be prepared to meet this challenge,” then you open the door for good things to happen.

For one, normally when you’re stressed, blood vessels constrict, and that’s one reason chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. But in a study at Harvard University, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful in challenging circumstances, their blood vessels stayed relaxed and open.

In those cases, your body acts more like it would in a moment of joy or courage, rather than fear or anxiety.

Changing the way you interpret stress also allows you to perform at a higher level. As you can imagine, when you’re stressed and you’re stuck in a spiral of negative thoughts like “This is going to kill me” or “I can’t perform like this,” there’s no way you’ll be able to perform at your best. When you change your thoughts, though, your performance changes. Just ask professional athletes, for example, who have been trained to make stress work for them.

Of course we’ve just scraped the surface of a very complex topic here, but we don’t have to dig deep to find a “nugget” that we can put to use in our life and work right now. So today, and in this week ahead, here’s the simple action plan:

Try to notice when you start feeling stressed, and then remember that in that moment — like every moment — you have a choice. Choose to believe that your body is working for you instead of against you.

Kelly summed it up very nicely in her talk:

“Hopefully the next time your heart is pounding from stress, you’re going to remember this talk and you’re going to think to yourself, ‘this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.’ And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.”

Here’s to a happy, healthy week!

photo credit: jDevaun via photopin cc