By Dr. Hilary Booth, ND
I spend a lot of time talking with my patients about the dangers of stress. Stress increases your risk of the flu, cancer, heart disease, obesity, and insomnia, just to name a few. However, my mind was recently blown by a study that found that the experience of stress is actually relatively harmless. Instead, our belief about stress is what poses a threat to our health.
This study followed 30,000 American adults for 8 years. At the beginning of the study they asked two questions: “How much stress did you experience in the last year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”. They then used public death records to track who died. It’s definitely a bit morbid, but it’s also strikingly simple.
The results showed that people who were under lots of stress and believed that stress is harmful for their health had a 43% higher rate of death. To be honest, this is not all that surprising.
Here’s where it gets interesting. People who experienced high levels of stress but did not perceive stress as harmful, had the lowest risk of death out of anyone in the study, including those people who reported experiencing very little stress. This means it may not be stress itself that kills us, but instead, the belief that stress is bad.
Our Bodies on Stress
Many different hormones modulate the body’s natural stress response. We often point to cortisol as the main culprit, but epinephrine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, angiotensin, vasopression, and many other hormones also change the way the body works when we’re faced with stress. When these hormones are released, our heart beats faster, we breathe more rapidly, we get a burst of energy, and blood flow reroutes toward our muscles and vital organs. This is best known as the “fight or flight” response.
Changing our Perspective
Research shows that reframing how we think about this “fight or flight” response can actually change the way our bodies respond. For example, we can think of a pounding heart as preparing us for action, and breathing faster as bringing more oxygen to the brain. Or, instead of being frustrated that there are a million thoughts rushing through your mind, be happy knowing that your brain is actually laying down more connections and pathways to improve your memory in the future. The body is pretty smart! It is responding to allow us to rise to the challenges we face.
Studies show that when we believe that a stress response is a good thing, the way our blood flows through our bodies is completely different. In fact, when we’re positive about stress, it mimics the way our blood flows through the body when we’re experiencing joy, rather than the way it usually looks when we experience stress. This simple change in blood flow reduces cardiovascular risk and reduces anxiety. Studies also show an overall reduction in cortisol levels when we perceive stress as a good thing, and an improvement in blood sugar regulation. This prevents weight gain, improves the immune system, and improves sleep. All from simply shifting our thoughts about stress!
The Bottom Line
Does this mean we need to be seeking out stressful situations to be healthy? Absolutely not! It’s still important to try to reduce stress whenever possible. However, this is good news for those of us who experience stress as an unavoidable aspect of life. Start thinking about stress as a good thing. Trust that your body’s response is for your benefit, and not working against you. The next time you get stressed out, take a deep breath, smile, and think, “My body is doing an amazing job at allowing me to respond to this situation. This is great!”.
My take away message is this: Change your belief about stress – it might just save your life.
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