Sunday, 27 October 2013

How to make Stress your Friend

I’m usually pretty chilled. But like everyone else, I have had some extremely stressful encounters during my life. Like that time I was held up by the ultra-suspicious customs officials at Dallas airport with less than forty minutes to go before my connection flight. I had not slept in twenty hours. After my suitcase was inspected, I got completely lost and had to rely on the slack-jawed Texan staff to help me find my terminal. “Don’tcha worry nahhh, we’s gonna get y’all home.” (Praise the Lord.) If I have many more days like this, I remember thinking, I will have a heart attack before I’m thirty.

Was I right in thinking that? Apparently not! I recently listened to a speech by the delectable Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. It was about stress. “I have a confession to make,” McGonigal announces to her large audience. Her deadly sin is that for the past ten years, she has been teaching people that stress is BAD. That stress increases the risk of all ailments from the common cold to cardiovascular disease.

Then she discovered that this was not entirely true. She cited an eye-opening study which surveyed 30,000 US adults over an eight-year period. Participants were asked how much stress they had experienced during the past year, and whether or not they believed stress to be damaging to one’s health. Then the researchers checked the death statistics from this sample to see which participants had died. Lovely stuff.

Those who experienced a lot of stress and believed that yes, it is unhealthy, were 43% more likely to pop their clogs than other participants. Not really surprising. However, those who had experienced a lot of stress but did not believe it to be unhealthy had the lowest death rates of all. 
Thus it is not stress per se that’s the killer. It is the way stress is perceived. McGonigal points out that the belief that “stress is harmful” is the fifteenth most major cause of death in the US. This irrational belief kills more than AIDS and homicide! What can be done to change this?
McGonigal describes a stressful scenario to her audience, asking them to imagine how it would affect them physically. Racing heart, rapid breathing, sweat breaking out, that sort of thing. Exactly what I experienced in Dallas. It’s how these symptoms are perceived which determines mortality. Some believe rapid breathing and a pounding heart to be signs of anxiety, of being unable to cope. However, says McGonigal, these symptoms are actually helpful. The increase in heart rate is your body’s way of preparing you for action, whilst the rapid breathing is to get more oxygen to your brain so that you can think faster.

In people who don’t know this, the blood vessels constrict when that person is faced with a stressful situation. (Having constricted blood vessels on a regular basis is indeed linked to cardiovascular problems. It really is not healthy.) People who appreciate the helpful properties of stress symptoms, however, show relaxed blood vessels when under pressure. In fact, their blood vessels resemble those of someone having a joyful or courageous moment, a Harvard study found.

Thus, if perceived in the right way, stress can actually be beneficial. Kelly McGonigal informs her audience that a much overlooked part of the stress response is the release of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” – it’s released when you hug someone. How sweet.

Oxytocin is a wonder hormone. It primes people to strengthen their relationships with others, motivating compassion, empathy and helpfulness. It also motivates people to seek support from those who care about them. Ooh, and it counters the more negative effects of stress, protecting the cardiovascular system and helping to build up a resistance. It can even repair damaged heart tissue. We should all snort some every day. 

Oxytocin’s healing properties were demonstrated in a study of 1000 US adults. Investigators asked participants how much stress they’d encountered in the last year, and also how much time they had spent helping other people. And again, wahoo, death rates were analysed.  
Participants who had experienced a major stressful event (e.g. family break-ups, financial troubles, getting lost in Texas) were 30% more likely to die than their un-stressed counterparts. But, if the “stressed” participant spent a significant amount of time helping other people, they were no more likely to die than the un- or marginally-stressed people in the study. In lay terms, people who had the right ideas about stress could enjoy its oxytocin-induced benefits (motivation to help others, protection of cardiovascular system) instead of being bogged down by all the fluey and heart-attacky stuff. 
Had I known all this in Dallas, I might have smiled at the cowboy who ransacked my suitcase instead of snarling at him. 

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