Health Managing Self Neuroscience Positive Psychology Wellness

Stress is enhancing and signals growth

Written by Julia Menard

There is some new research on stress that might surprise you! Kelly McGonigal, a health researcher, psychologist and Stanford academic has been studying the debilitating effects of stress for over a decade, but then came across a study which dramatically changed her mind about stress.

The study tracked 30,000 Americans for 9 years who were asked how much stress they had experienced in the last year. They were also asked: “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then the study looked at public health records to correlate who died. People who experienced a lot of stress had a 43% increased risk of dying – but only the sub-set who believed stress was harmful for their health. Those who didn’t believe stress was bad for them had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the 30,000 people study (Keller, Litzelman, Wisk, et al. 2012, University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine and Public Health).

The take-away for McGonigal is that when you change your mind about stress, you change your body, too.

In a second significant study conducted at Harvard, participants were told stress helps them meet their challenges. They were told their pounding heart was preparing them for action and breathing faster was getting more oxygen to their brains (Jamieson, Nock, & Mendes, 2012, Harvard University, Dept. of Psychology).

McGonigal has come to understand that our stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience and that mechanism is human connection. In stress, the hormone oxytocin gets released and acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, helps us to stay relaxed during stress and to seek out others for social support.

McGonigal cited another study which tracked 1000 adults from 34 – 93 years of age. They were asked how much stress they experienced in the last year. They were also asked how much time they have spent helping out friends, neighbours and people in their community. Public death records were also looked at, over the next 5 years, to see who died. Again, for every major stressor, like financial or family crises, that increased the risk of dying by 30%. But, people who spent time caring for others showed no stress-related increase in dying. Caring created resilience (Poulin, Brown, Dillard & Smith, 2013, University of Buffalo, NY, Dept of Psychology).

In another study, scientists looked at the effect of stress on monkey’s brains. Instead of frazzling their neural circuitry, the scientists discovered that stress helped their brains generate new cells that boosted their ability to learn and remember.

This way of looking at stress reminds me of a video I saw years ago by Rabbi Abraham Twerski confirming McGonigal’s message from a spiritual perspective. It’s about how lobsters grow.

How do you think about stress?

“Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”
… Hans Selye

About the author

Julia Menard

Have you ever wondered why you can be so calm and rational for your clients, but when it comes to your own life, stress can creep in so easily? That’s the quest I set out on when, after 20 years as a mediator, my own marriage disintegrated. I teamed up with a therapist from Portland, and we wrote a book that captures much of what I’ve learned over the last five years about finding a the calm in the chaos. Hold On To Yourself: How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations is the result. If you are interested in mindfulness, finding the leader within and engaging the gifts in conflict, then check out my website and sign up for my free monthly newsletter at:

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