You can hardly pick up an article on health today without some reference to the terrible impact of stress. It's implicated in the majority of medical care complaints, and can make any condition worse
Indeed, there is an entire stress management "industry" out there dedicated to teaching us all how to better "manage" those pesky and never-ending challenges to our sense of mental and physical well being.
And for good reason!
- Affect almost every organ system for the worse
- Contribute greatly to the most common illnesses facing us today
- Suppress our immune systems
- Significantly impact work productivity and absenteeism
New research is now showing that there is another side to the stress challenge!
RE-THINKING THE STRESS-ILLNESS CONNECTION:
The traditional view of stress sees it as an "enemy" that makes us "fight or flee." It amps up the emotional center in our brain, and "highjacks" the rational, thinking part leading to bad decisions and poor health.
Yikes! All stress experts agree that everyone experiences stress, and most paint a pretty frightening picture of it. A "stressful" one, in fact.
But recent research challenges this view of stress. It highlights the fact that stress is not only a natural part of everyone's life, it often leads to some very positive outcomes when properly managed. For example:
- Stress frequently speeds and improves our problem solving ability
- It causes the release of neuro-hormones that stimulate us to reach out to others for social support, a major resiliency builder
- Under certain conditions stress can actually bolster our immune response
- It often leads to a deeper sense of personal meaning and life fulfillment
- It contributes to mental hardiness, or toughness in many cases
So, some leading experts in the field have begun to ask, what would happen if we changed the way we "think" about stress, and emphasized its power for health promotion and happiness, rather than the down side? And the answer will surprise you!
Here are a couple of fascinating recent studies that make the point:
The Power of Belief
In the first, published in The Journal of Health Psychology (Keller, A., August, 2012), 30,000 adults were studied over a period of eight years after answering two questions:
- How much stress do you have in your life?
- Do you believe stress is harmful to you?
Then, using public health records, researchers were able to determine which participants actually died during the course of the 8 year study.
The findings were amazing! Not surprisingly, those who acknowledged the highest levels of stress within the past year showed a 43% increased risk of dying.
However, this was only true for those who had said they believed stress was personally harmful to them.
- And, the main finding was that those who experienced higher levels of stress, but did not believe stress was harming them, actually had the lowest risk of dying of all.
- So it was the belief that stress was bad for them, and not the actual stress itself that did the damage!
The Power of Altruism
And here is a second study that may warm your heart a little. It was published in the American Journal of Public Health (Poulin, M., September 2013).
This study involved nearly 1,000 adults ranging from their thirties to their nineties. Participants were asked two questions related to:
- How much stress they experienced within the past year and,
- How much time they spent helping others in their life including family, friends, and neighbors
Again, public health records were tracked to see who died over the next five years. The results showed that for every major stressful event, including financial setbacks and family crises, the risk of dying went up by about 30%.
But guess what? This did not hold true for those who reported higher levels of caring for others. In fact, that group showed no increased risk of death. This showed that stress, buffered by altruism and social connectivity, can dramatically increase your resistance to illness and even reduce your chances of dying!
But how hard is it to change your sincerely held beliefs about the effects of stress on your health?
As it turns out, it's not all that difficult:
Harvard stress and happiness expert, Shawn Achor and his colleagues, performed a fascinating experiment reported in The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology (April, 2013).
They trained two large groups of people working in a high stress company by showing each group one of two different videos. The first group saw a video depicting stress as "damaging" to their health and performance. The second group watched a video presenting stress as "enhancing" to both the brain and body.
The results were "highly significant." Those who viewed the "enhancing" video reported notable reductions in stress related physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and others, even several months later.
In addition, they showed almost a 30% increase in work productivity!
So what do these experts recommend? In a program called "Rethinking Stress" they urged participants to take three steps:
- Become more mindful of the specific life stressors you face (self-awareness).
- Search for the "meaning" underlying your stress (as an example: "I'm feeling stressed about this financial set-back because I need to make better budget decisions.")
- Use the stress to generate motivation and positive problem solving action steps (as an example: "I'll set up a meeting with my spouse and financial advisor to develop a plan").
THE TAKE HOME MESSAGE:
Combining the above methods, including regularly reaching out to be supportive of others, will go a long way toward buffering your mind and body against the worst effects of stress.
WHAT ELSE CAN I DO TO HANDLE STRESS MORE EFFECTIVELY?
There is a simple acronym describing 5 basic elements that are all known to reduce stress and bolster health and happiness: L-E-A-R-N (source unknown).
Each letter stands for a different element of stress reduction as follows:
L: Laugh and play. Recent research shows that positive emotions play a much larger role in our health and happiness than was ever believed. Click here to learn about Pillar 4 in Resiliency4Life entitled "Sparking Positive Emotions."
E: Exercise. An overly sedentary lifestyle is toxic to the mind and erodes physical health on all levels. Click here to learn how to slowly, safely and simply increase your fitness by making small changes to your activity level.
A: Attitude is everything. Even the grumpiest of us can learn to re-frame self-defeating thinking habits, regulate feelings and create positive motivation. Click here for Pillar 1 from Resiliency4Life and get started on "Building Mental Hardiness," closely correlated with health, happiness, and higher performance at all levels.
R: Relaxation. It's so much more than most people understand. It is a wonderfully active process of letting go of tension and calming both mind and body. It is the perfect antidote to "fight or flight". Click here to learn how to rapidly incorporate the brief, effective tools taught in Pillar 3 in Resiliency4Life, entitled "Building Mind-Body Muscle Memory."
N: Nutrition. What and how you eat is the foundation for positive health and stress resistance. They go hand in hand, and provide the fuel for everything you do. Click here for guidance on strengthening eating habits and the latest on simple state of the art dietary recommendations.
Note: Several of the brief, evidence based programs included in Healthy Mindsets! deal directly with stress management and stress prevention. For example:
The Roadmap to Peace of Mind has been used by tens of thousands working to deal with stressful emotional conditions including depression, anxiety and anger. Click here to learn more.
Resiliency4Life is chock full of information and invaluable tools to boost your physical and mental resilience better enabling you to bounce back from stress. And it's fun! Click here to learn more.