TED Talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend

In 2013, psychologist Kelly McGonigal Phd. gave one of the most viewed TED Talks of all-time where she reviews her book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You and How to Get Good at It. Today, Ignitia reviews the keys points from this landmark TED Talk now viewed over 17 million times.

Changing Our Perception of Stress

Kelly begins her talk by confessing to the audience that she is a health psychologist and her mission is to help people be happier and healthier, but fears something she’s been teaching for the past ten years is doing more harm than good. For years Kelly’s been telling people that stress makes them sick. She was telling them stress increases the risk of everything from the common cold, to cardiovascular disease. Kelly says this approach is counterproductive because it turns stress into the enemy. According to Kelly, she’s changed her mind about stress,and she thinks it will benefit us greatly if we change ours too.

Some Truly Amazing Findings

From here Kelly, introduces us to a study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States over eight years. According to the study, those people who reported experiencing a lot of stress over the past year had a 43% increased risk of dying. However, this statistic was only true for those who believed stress was harmful to their health. Amazingly, those who reported having a lot of stress but DID NOT view stress as harmful to their health had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study. According to research, over the eight years of the study an estimated 182,000 Americans died as a result of their belief that stress was bad for their health. According to Kelly, if that statistic is true it would make believing that stress is bad for you the 15th leading cause of death in the United States – ahead of HIV, skin cancer, and even homicide.

Harvard Proves the Point

This study caused Kelly to ask the question, ‘Can changing the way we think about stress make us healthier?’ According to Kelly, the science was stating that it could. According to Kelly, when you change your mind about stress you can also change your body’s response to stress. To prove this point, Kelly has the audience count backward from 996 in increments of 7, out loud, as fast as they can, while she harasses them. Under these stressful circumstance Kelly explains the typical response may be to feel some anxiety, to feel your hands go clammy, and to feel our hearts race, and to perhaps perspire.

In a study conducted at Harvard which placed participants under similar stress, the participants were instructed to view these physical symptoms of stress as their body’s naturally reaction in preparing to meet the challenge. According to Kelly, when participants were told to view their physical responses to stress – such as a pounding heart or fast breathing – as the body preparing itself to take action. Kelly explains that the participants who were instructed to view their physical stress as helpful experienced a physical response where, even though their hearts were beating faster, the arteries of their hearts remained relax as opposed to constricted. Fascinatingly, this relaxed stated is physically very similar to a person who is experiencing joy.

Making Stress Healthy

According to Kelly, these findings changed her goals as a health psychologist. According to Kelly, her goals are no longer to help her patients get rid of stress but instead to make her patients, ‘Better at stress’. Kelly encourages those with a high level of stress to view the onset of such stress as their body rising to meet the challenge. According to Kelly, when we view stress in this way our bodies believe us and our stress responses become healthier.

Stress Releases Oxytocin

To further emphasize the benefits of these ideas, Kelly offers one more finding – stress makes you social. According to Kelly, when we are in a stressful situation our pituitary glands pump out as much oxytocin as adrenaline. According to Kelly, oxytocin fine tunes our brain’s social instincts, it primes us to do things that strengthen close relationships, and it makes us crave physical contact as well as enhancing our empathy and support of those we care about. As such, when oxytocin is released due to a stress response, it is the biological driver for us to express how we feel to another. According to Kelly, this makes us biologically programmed to crave people who help and support us when we are stressed.

How Human Connection Can Strengthen the Heart

According to Kelly, one of the main roles of oxytocin is also to protect our cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. In fact, oxytocin even binds with receptors in the heart to heal stress induced damage. All of these benefits are enhanced when we reach out to others as well, both when we are under stress, and when we reach out to help those who are under stress themselves. According to Kelly, this means our bodies have a built in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.

A Study Showing Caring for Others Helps Us Live Longer

Kelly ends her talk by describing one more study. This study was conducted by the University of Buffalo and tracked 1,000 people between the ages of 85 and 93 years old. The study started by asking the participants how much stress they’d experienced over the past year. They then also asked the participants how much time they spent helping others. Over the next five years, the study then tracked who died. What the study found was that every major life stress – such as financial ruin – increased the risk of dying by 30%. However, those who spent time caring for others saw a 0% increase in the chance of dying from a major life stresses. Once again, the study showed that caring creates resilience.

To conclude, Kelly reiterates the point that how we think and act can transform how we respond to stress. According to Kelly, when we think of stress as our friend, we are saying we can trust ourselves to handle life’s challenges. And we are reminded that we don’t have to face those challenges alone.

 

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