Is stress harmful? It’s all in the way you think about it

Sep 06, 2018

Most of us know that stress can harm us physically and psychologically. It has been linked to heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, skin problems, obesity, and depression. So it’s easy to conclude that eliminating as much stress as possible is critical to staying healthy.

But not all stress is bad. In small doses, stress can be empowering. Your body has a “fight or flight” response to immediate stress causing it to release hormones, quicken your breathing, and make your heart beat faster to give you the energy to meet the challenge you’re facing or flee quickly from it.

However, humans are not meant to be in a state of fight or flight all the time. When it’s ongoing or too frequent, stress can tax your heart and immune system, interfere with your sleep, and exhaust your emotional resources.

Researchers are finding that it’s not only the amount of stress in people’s lives that matters, but how they think about it. A 2012 University of Wisconsin study surveyed people about their stress levels and how they felt stress affected their health, and then tracked those patients over eight years. The study showed that people were at an increased risk of dying when they had a lot of stress in their lives—but only when that stress was coupled with the belief that the stress was harmful. The people who reported a lot of stress but did not think it was harmful had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study—even less than those who did not have much stress at all.

So, given that stress is a fact of life, approaching it in a positive way can be helpful.

Change your mindset

Remember that your body’s response to stress is designed to help you, not hurt you. You’ve dealt with stress many times. Know that everyone faces stress because it is part of the human condition.

Reach out to people

Oxytocin, called the “cuddle hormone” because levels of it increase when you hug someone, is also released during stress. It’s an anti-inflammatory that helps blood vessels stay relaxed and heart cells regenerate, protecting you from the effects of stress. So call a friend, make small talk with strangers, throw a dinner party, give hugs.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness, the practice of focusing on the moment and accepting your feelings and thoughts without judgment, can help put you in a calmer mental state to handle pressure. Meditation and yoga are two good ways to help you get into a mindful state.

Take care of other people

A University of Buffalo study surveyed 1,000 people about their stress levels and how much time they spent helping others, and then tracked who died within five years. They found that each major stressful experience increased the risk of death by 30 percent—except for people who spent time helping or taking care of other people. For those people, there was no stress-related increased risk of death.

Laugh and cry

Tears contain stress hormones, and the act of crying converts your stress into something tangible and helps you release some of it. And they say that laughter is the best medicine; it causes you to take in oxygen and increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Then, when you’ve finished laughing and cool down, you’re left with that pleasantly relaxed feeling.

For more on managing stress, click here.

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