What If You’re Doing Stress All Wrong?

September 26, 2016

You’ve heard the recommendations about managing stress for years. They say too much stress can be bad for you. You’ve even heard it can lead to a heart attack or a stroke. You hear someone say “Stress can kill you” and you nod your head because you’ve heard that’s true.

But you’re not sure you believe it, not completely. The way you see it, stress is what motivates the high achiever. Stress is part of the challenge you take on to get the big prize. A necessary evil.

Maybe you try some suggestions about reducing your stress. You:

  • Plan some time to decompress every so often after work, to kick back and relax for a while. But who’s got time for that? Slow down and you’ll fall behind! Besides, isn’t dinner and drinks with friends – okay, a business dinner – enough relaxation?
  • Plan to take a break for a few minutes in your day and get some physical activity, deep breathing, time with nature, or whatever. But who can really get deep breaths and relax when the proposal has to be done by close of business? And how can you enjoy taking a walk in a park to appreciate nature when you have 5 calls to return?
  • Try a brand-new time management system to schedule everything, I mean everything, not just the important stuff, because that way you can keep it all contained. But what urgent situation schedules itself on your calendar before erupting? How many people are going to check your Google calendar before calling you about a big problem?

So you keep doing what you’ve been doing, hoping that watching sports on the weekend is kind of like de-stressing (pretty risky if you’re a Cowboys fan) or getting together for drinks will help you relax. Sadly, while excitement is fun, it doesn’t help with stress. And alcohol is just a chemical pause for stress, not a solution.

Fortunately, there are a couple of important new pieces to the stress puzzle that can completely change how you prepare for and respond to stress. Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, summarized them in her 2013 TED Talk.

McGonigal for years warned people of the research-proven health risks of too much stress. And they can be pretty bad. Heart disease, risk of heart attack, risk of stroke, plus other chronic illnesses. What the new research showed, and what made McGonigal feel guilty, is that those health risks only exist for people who believe stress will harm them.

People who don’t believe stress is physically harmful don’t have increased health risks from stress. Your mindset, how you understand things and what you expect, makes all the difference in the world.

Some of the people in a study were prompted with a new belief about stress. They were told:

  • Your faster heart rate is preparing you for action.
  • Your faster breathing gets oxygen to your brain.
  • You are getting ready for what’s coming your way.

People who were taught this belief were less stressed out, less anxious, and more confident during the study and showed no negative health impact from stress down the road. Their physical response to stress changed. A typical stress response is that your heart rate goes up and your vessels constrict. For these people, heart rate increased but vessels stayed open. It was the same physical response as people who experience joy or courage.

It gets better. There’s a hormone in your body called oxytocin. It has a big role in bonding, establishing emotional connections. Turns out it also plays an important role in stress. Oxytocin protects your cardiovascular system from stress. It’s anti-inflammatory, helping blood vessels stay relaxed.

Your heart has receptors for oxytocin. When you reach out you release oxytocin. It strengthens your heart. It helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. Your stress response becomes healthier and you recover from stress more quickly.

That means our stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. Oxytocin motivates you to seek support and to connect, and when you do additional oxytocin protects you from stress.

The harmful effects of stress on health are not inevitable. When you choose to view the stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience.

Intrigued? Click here to see the TED Talk.

This post appeared in the Grapevine Chamber of Commerce Blog as part of the Experts Series.