Stress can be harmful to health

By La Vista Palmes/reporter

The belief that stress is harmful is actually more harmful than stress itself, TR students learned March 19.

Teaching for the last 10 years about how stress does more harm than good, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal now speaks on How to Make Stress Your Friend. TR counselor Mandy Melton during her workshop showed a video of McGonigal’s lecture.

McGonigal based her information on an eight-year study tracking 30,000 U.S. adults that first asked participants questions, including “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” Then public death records were used to find if any of them had died.

Kelly McGonigal
Kelly McGonigal

The study revealed a 43 percent increased risk of dying among those who believed stress is harmful to one’s health. However, the risk of dying was lower for those who experienced stress but did not think it was harmful.

Researchers tracked deaths over eight years and determined 182,000 Americans had died prematurely. McGonigal said it was contrary to the belief that “stress is bad for you.” With that study amounting to over 20,000 deaths annually, more deaths have been a result of stress in the United States than of skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide, McGonigal said.

Thus, believing that stress is harmful became the “15th-largest cause of death in the United States.”

McGonigal said the study made her ask herself, “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? Science says ‘yes.’ When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”

McGonigal said the hormone oxytocin has a huge impact on the body’s reaction to stress.

“It primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships,” she said. “Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family.”

The pituitary gland pumps the hormone, which makes someone seek support.

“Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up,” she said. “Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.”

The hormone affects not only the brain but the body by protecting the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It helps the body stay relaxed through the blood vessels and heart.

“The cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support,” she said. “So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”

An additional study of 1,000 U.S. adults, ages 34 to 93, were asked “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and “How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbors and people in your community?” Public records were searched for the next five years to find out who had died.

That study determined that “people who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying.” When people chose to connect with others under stress, resilience could be created, McGonigal said.

“The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy, and when you choose to view stresses in this way, you are choosing to trust yourself and saying you don’t have to face them alone,” she said.