You've probably heard that stress is bad for your health. It can cause a headache, muscle tension, stomach upset, anxiety, depression, overeating, and social withdrawal to name only a few of the negative effects associated with stress.
So it makes sense to avoid stress at all costs, right? Don't try to achieve too much, or set your goals too high, if you want to avoid an early death.
Fortunately, there's a much simpler solution that doesn't require you to do anything differently. All you have to do is to stop believing that stress is bad for you.
I know that sounds crazy, but that's exactly what researchers found in 2012 when they looked at data from 186 US citizens. The people who reported a high level of stress had a 43% increased risk of premature death, but only if they believed that stress was bad for their health. [source]
To get a clear understanding of what this means, we need to define stress.
Stress can generally be considered as the experience of anticipating or encountering adversity in one’s goal-related efforts. That means that we encounter stress if there's something stopping us from reaching our goal, but also if we just think that there might something come up in the future that will stop us.
So stress isn't just created by our environment, it's also created by what we think might happen. This explains why what we think can have such a profound effect on how stress affects us.
That means you can be a high-achiever and still live healthily. In fact, the study also found that the people who experienced a lot of stress but didn't believe it was bad for their health, lived even longer than the ones who experienced relatively little.
Stress Is Making You Stronger
To benefit from these findings, you need to train yourself to perceive stress differently. Your body is going to react to stress by increasing your heart rate and you will start to breath faster.
That's perfectly fine, however. Your body is just preparing you for the challenge ahead. Your body is ready to respond to anything that might happen and your brain will get more oxygen, so you can think faster.
That's pretty amazing, if you think about it, and not very different from when you're excited about something. The physical response is the same, so you might as well interpret these changes as excitement, instead of stress.
Your body is helping you to rise to the occasion and to overcome whatever obstacles life is throwing your way, and I think that's something to be excited about.
So the next time, your heart rate increasing and your breath going faster, you can thank your body, and you should feel excited that you're challenging yourself and growing in the process.
Stress Is Better With Friends
Aside from preparing you for a challenge, stress also releases oxytocin, which has a positive effect on your cardiovascular system. Oxytocin, also called the cuddle hormone, causes you to crave connection and will make you want to reach out to other people.
If you do that, even more oxytocin will be released increasing its positive effect on your cardiovascular system. That's why you should ask for help when you're stressed and seek the company of other people.
Although asking for help is great, you can do even better by helping other people too. A study from 2012 has shown that helping others can completely alleviate the negative effects stress can have on your life expectancy. While people who felt stress were more likely to die, this didn't apply to those who regularly provided help to others. [source]
So if you're stressed a lot, you should practice to view your stress as helpful and exciting, and also use some of your time to help out others. If you're not stressed at all, you might want to consider challenging yourself more and bring a little more excitement into your life.
This article has been inspired by Kelly McGonigal's amazing TED Talk that you can watch here.