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I think we can all identify with the feeling of being stressed.  And the World Health Organisation seems to have an opinion on whether stress is good or bad for you – they have identified stress as a “World Wide Epidemic”.

A Gallup poll showed that people who don’t have enough spare time say they frequently experience stress. Some other common causes of stress are: family and friends, life changes (eg moving house, marriage, pregnancy, divorce) financial worries, work pressure and health issues.

We invariably think of these things when we think of chronic stress and many studies have shown that stress in these areas of our lives can lead to many adverse health outcomes; from impairing our immune systems to developing anxiety and depression.

But some interesting new research is asking “Is stress good or bad for you?” and the answer may not be what you think it is.

It’s saying that it’s not stress itself that causes these health conditions but in fact it is what we believe about stress that causes us to become ill.

It’s not stress itself that causes these health conditions but in fact it is what we believe about stress that causes us to become ill.

What does stress do to the body?

Stressful events; from being confronted by a wild beast or being shouted at by someone, causes hormonal changes in the body and the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol.

This shuts down some bodily systems – the reproductive system and the digestive system for example – and causes an increased heartbeat and blood circulation. Fat and sugar are mobilised for immediate energy, our attention becomes more focused on the threat and the muscles are prepared for movement. This is so that the body can quickly act, whether that is to run, fight or hide.

This stress-response system is usually short-lived. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.

It is thought that activating the stress-response system repeatedly and for a long time – which brings with it overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones – can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. And so this then puts us at increased risk of many health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment
stress good or bad

But what if it’s the belief in stress as bad that is more harmful than the stress itself?

This idea that our beliefs and temperament can influence our physical health is nothing new. A 2011 review of more than 160 studies of human and animal subjects found “clear and compelling evidence” that positive beliefs have a strong influence on people’s good health.

A study followed nearly 5,000 university students for more than 40 years and found that those who were most pessimistic as students tended to die younger than their peers. 

An even longer-term study that followed 180 Catholic nuns from early adulthood to old age found that those who wrote positive autobiographies in their early 20s tended to outlive those who wrote more negative accounts of their young lives.

So, it seems that having either a positive or negative attitude does affect our health. But what about our attitude towards stress itself? How does that affect us?

It is what we think is happening to us that determines our outcome. 

In one study, researchers asked 30,000 people a question: “Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?” 

In this study, the highest mortality rates were seen in those who experienced a high degree of stress and believed it was harmful to their health.

On the other hand, those with the lowest risk of dying had the same stress levels as their counterparts, but didn’t believe stress was bad for you. 

So changing our thoughts and beliefs about how stress affects our health may be one of the best things we can do for ourselves.

It is what we think is happening to us that determines our outcome.

Stress can make you stronger, smarter and happier

Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, has been studying the effects of stress on the body and performance. She says that stress isn’t always harmful and if you can embrace the concept of stress, it can make you stronger, smarter and happier.  

In her book, “The Upside of Stress” she overturns long-held beliefs about stress. Instead of thinking of stress as harmful, she says we should embrace stress as something helpful to the body. 

This is more than just positive thinking, she goes further and makes three main suggestions:

  1. View your body’s stress response as helpful, not debilitating. In other words, look at stress as energy you can use
  2. View yourself as able to handle, and even learn and grow from the stress in your life 
  3. View stress as something that everyone deals with, rather than something that show that you are incompetent/incapable/not good enough.

The research coming out now shows that it is possible to change these views, even if we have always thought of stress as a bad thing.

One example of how we do this could be when you feel your heart pounding from anxiety. Instead, think about how your body is trying to give you the energy you need to rise to the challenge. Changing these attitudes can help you thrive in the face of ordinary stress as well as chronic or even traumatic stress.

A final word

Interestingly, a study from Harvard University demonstrated that when participants in a stressful situation were told to experience their physical stress responses as positive responses (e.g. helping to prepare their bodies for challenge), their heart and breathing rates were similar.

However, their blood vessels did not constrict as they do when we think stress is bad. In fact, the actual biological measures of the heart pounding and faster breathing with more relaxed blood vessels are similar to what our body experiences in times of joy and courage.

It turns out that what we believe about stress matters a great deal. Perhaps the most powerful intervention you can do for yourself is to think about the signs of stress as helpful indicators of getting your body ready for the challenge. This can transform how our bodies interpret stress and help us meet the challenges in our life.

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