We can all recite the top things that cause us stress, yes? Money, jobs, and relationships are always on our mind. Inevitably these are some of the most popular things we point to as causes of chronic stress. What about the effects? If you were to ask around, most people would say that stress–worrying about these things–makes you sick. It clogs our arteries, hurts our immune system, and causes all kinds of illness, right? Well, actually, not exactly. Some very exciting research is pointing toward the fact that it isn’t stress that causes all these things. It is, in reality, what we believe about stress that does.
This is a subtle yet powerful difference in understanding the effects of stress. Let’s say you are worried about whether your relationship is going to last. If you believe that worrying will be harmful to your health, then it will be. But if you believe that concern about your relationship will give you the courage to deal with it, the effects on your body will be very different. They will be beneficial rather than harmful.
The degree to which our beliefs and temperament can influence our physical condition was first dramatically demonstrated by the Nun Study, which looked at the impact of positive emotions and attitude on longevity and well-being. Researchers chose to study hundreds of sisters because they live together, have regularized diets, no children, and typically do not smoke or drink to excess–perfect subjects for a study. The investigation looked at the degree to which a positive or negative approach to life would affect lifelong physical health. The dramatic results show that attitude can profoundly influence not only the quality but also the length of our life.
The scientists analyzed autobiographies the sisters had written seeking entry into the convent as young women from the 1930s and 1940s. They looked at sentences for positive, negative, and neutral words and a variety of positive emotional expressions. The analysis took place nearly 60 years later when the nuns were between 75 and 94 years old. What the researchers found about how positive feelings affect longevity was nothing short of amazing. At age 85, 90 percent of the most cheerful quartile were still alive, while only 34 percent of the bottom quarter survived. At age 94 the numbers were even more striking, with 54 percent of the top quartile still alive–compared to 11 percent of their less optimistic counterparts. The probability of survival was consistently in favor of the more positive nuns. The investigation shows there is a direct relationship between positive beliefs and longevity. So, it seems that having a positive attitude can affect our health–but what about our attitude toward stress itself? How does that affect us?
It is what we think is happening to us that determines our reaction. This perspective is a game-changer. In one study involving 30,000 people, researchers asked a simple question: “Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?” In this study, the highest rates of mortality were for those who’ve experienced a high degree of stress and believed it was harmful to their health.
In this eight-year study, those with the lowest risk of dying had the same high rates of stress as their counterparts, but didn’t believe stress was bad for you. To put this in perspective, this would put the belief that stress is bad for you among the top 15 causes of death in the U.S., killing more people than HIV/AIDS, skin cancer, and homicide. As it turns out, modifying our thoughts and beliefs about how stress affects our health may be one of the healthiest things we can do.
Kelly McGonigal (How To Make Stress Your Friend) is a health psychologist from Stanford University who has been studying the effects of stress on the body and performance. She has been finding that if we perceive stress as having a negative impact on our well-being and performance, then it does. However, if we interpret the signs of stress–like a faster beating heart and accelerated respiration–as signs of readiness to meet the challenge, it may actually be very beneficial to our body and performance.
In fact, research out of Harvard demonstrated that when participants in a stress-induced situation were told to experience these physiological reactions as positive responses (being helpful for preparation), their heart and breathing rates were similar, yet their blood vessels did not constrict as they do when we think stress is bad. The actual biological measures of the heart pounding and quicker respiration with more relaxed blood vessels are physiologically similar to what our body experiences in times of joy and courage.
It turns out that what we believe about stress matters greatly. Perhaps the most powerful intervention you can do for yourself is to think about the signs of stress as helpful indicators of getting your body ready for the challenge. This can transform how our bodies interpret stress and help us meet the challenges in our life.