Your beliefs about stress could be killing you

Your beliefs about stress could be killing you

The title of this post might sound a bit dramatic, but hear me out. While I am a huge advocate of creating a lower stress lifestyle it turns out that our beliefs about stress may be even more important than how stressed we actually are.

There is persuasive research supporting this idea—being very stressed AND believing that a lot of stress is really bad for your health appears to contribute greatly to premature death. And just like Kelly McGonical in this TED Talk, I’m feeling a bit implicated here!

In fact, researchers estimate that more than 20,000 deaths a year in the US may be due to the belief that stress is bad for your health. Gulp…

I’ve been teaching people that stress is bad for your health for a good few years now, and so when I realised that this belief may well lead to premature death I decided I would do everything I could to spread the word about this research.

So how did researchers come to this conclusion? Their experiment really blows my mind! Approximately 29,000 people were asked how much stress they experienced in the year prior, and whether stress affects their health. Then they followed these people for eight years to monitor death rates. I know, crazy right!?

It turns out that those who experienced a lot of stress AND believed that that stress affected their health were 43% more likely to die prematurely than those who only reported experiencing a lot of stress.

But there’s more. The TED talk mentioned above, aptly titled “How to make stress your friend”, goes on to cite other research in which participants were taught that stress is good for their health. They then measured how much participants’ blood vessels constricted in response to stress and discovered there was a marked decrease in those who had been taught that stress is good for us.

As stress is known to be a factor in premature death from heart disease and vasoconstriction—constriction of the arteries—is a factor in this, it makes complete sense then that if we can successfully change our beliefs around how bad stress if for our health, we may well reduce our risk of premature death.

So, what are we to do with this info?

As well as making a conscious effort to reduce the stress in our lives, by doing less where we can and more of the things that are good for stress—prioritising sleep, meditating, exercising, and spending quality time with loved ones—we can intentionally change our attitude to the stresses we have in our lives.

We might love our job that is somewhat, or even very, stressful. We don’t need to change jobs. We may be caring for young children or elderly grandparents while managing a demanding work life. We can’t change these things. There are countless reasons why we may be experiencing lots of stress.

Instead of getting rid of all the stress in our lives, even if we could, in moments where we feel the fight-flight response in full swing, our blood pressure going through the roof, we can remind ourselves that this is, in fact, just the body helping us rise to the challenges we face.

We can try to conjure a sense of gratitude at this marvellous thing we call the human body and remind ourselves that what happens in our mind can have a huge impact on our physiology. If you don’t believe me, I want you to imagine you are sucking on a lemon. Have you noticed an increase in the saliva in your mouth? That’s your mind-affecting real physical changes in your body.

So, if your highly stressful career is really lighting your fire, perhaps the joy you get from doing that work outweighs the downside of the stress. Only you can decide this though. And, by all means, still, do what you can to offset stress and information overload.

There are times in our lives that are more stressful than others. When we have young children or elderly parents that need care, or when a relationship fails, we lose a loved one or are suffering from serious health concerns. These are the times when looking after ourselves with self-care needs to be front and centre. All too often this is when it’s most likely to be put on the backburner.

It’s important to remember, too, that not all stress is created equal. Some stress is good. If we can learn to befriend stress, to see our stress responses as the body’s amazing capacity to help us rise to the challenges of life, that is a huge step in the right direction to reduce the harmful effects of stress.

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