Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend (TED Talk)

A particular study changed Kelly’s attitude towards stress. It tracked 30,000 adults in the United States, for 8 years. They started by asking people: how much stress have you experienced in the last year? And, do you believe stress is harmful for your health?

Then they looked at public death records to see who died.

What they found is that those who had experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But, importantly, that was only true for those people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.

People who had a lot of stress, but did not view that stress as harmful for their health, were no more likely to die – in fact they had the lowest risk of dying of anybody in the study (even than those who had little stress).

It might be the case that ‘believing’ stress can kill you, is actually responsible for 20,000 premature deaths a year in America – which would make it the 15th biggest killer.

So – can changing how you think about stress, make you healthier. The science says yes.

You can learn to view stress as a positive – it’s your body preparing you for something, and it helps. One key difference is in the blood vessels. When you feel anxiety, your vessels close up – this is one reason people associate stress with cardiac arrest. But if you mentally believe the stress is good, your blood vessels actually remain the same.

This single finding could be the difference between having a heart attack in your fifties, and living well into your nineties.

As a health psychologist, Kelly now sees her job as remarkably different. Rather than warning that stress is bad, and to be avoided, she aims to make you better at dealing with stress.

When you feel stress coming on – think: this is my body, helping me rise to this challenge in front of me. You can simply trick your body into believing this is OK, even good, for you.

Another study showed that the act of caring for others reduces stress, and the likelihood of dying from stress. Being caring is one way to negate stress.

(Part of TED a day for June)

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