How often would you say experience stress in a year?
I can almost hear the laughter and the subsequent, resounding response of “a year?!” It’s true, we all will experience a certain degree of stress in our daily lives; everything from the feeling of running late to work to the bigger stress inducers like a foreboding email from your boss, waiting for the results of a mammogram, an unforeseen financial hardship, or a relationship struggle.
If you’re alive, you experience stress. Up until now, it was thought that stress was something to be avoided like the plague. It’s terrible for your health, it wreaks havoc on your life, and science tells us that extreme stress over time hikes up the probability of a premature death by a whopping 43%! Of course, you’re now going to do everything you can to not feel stress, although I’m sure reading this statistic just stressed you out. The problem is the more you try not to think about something and the more you push the thoughts away, the stronger they become. As Eckhart Tolle famously said, “what you resist, persists.”
I write and teach about eradicating fear, and I believe wholeheartedly in the ability to live a life free from fear. But getting there is a journey and a commitment. You don’t eradicate fear by ignoring it, pushing it away, or pretending it doesn’t exist. And the same is true for stress. After all, it is a close relative to fear and worry. Instead of fighting the experience of stress, I invite you today to change the way you think about it.
Kelly McGonigal, a health and happiness psychologist, gave an exhilarating TED Talk that illustrates how stress can be bad for you only if you believe that it is:
“Let me start with the study that made me rethink my whole approach to stress. This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years, and they started by asking people, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” And then they used public death records to find out who died. Okay. Some bad news first. People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress was harmful for their health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die early. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying [earlier] of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.”
The only difference between the study participants was simply how they each thought about stress and what they believed it meant. A shift in perspective literally saved people’s lives. Not only that, a shifted perspective is entirely free and possible right now! So, let’s get started and take a look at ways you can rethink stress.
Stress is an ally
What happens to your body when you experience stress? It’s quite similar to the fear response. Your heart rate begins to speed up, which causes your breath to quicken in order to get more oxygen flowing. This, in turn, increases blood flow and heats up the body. Typically, it’s about now that we start to feel the beginning of panic. But hold on . . .
As McGonigal pointed out in her talk, this physiological mechanism is not a cause for concern; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Your body is rushing to your aid, preparing you to rise to the challenge that is before you. It’s helping you to come into the present, to think quickly, and to act. Instead of seeing sweaty palms and flushed cheeks as something to be embarrassed about or as a signal that you’re in danger, see it as your body’s way of supporting you in a moment of challenge.
One of the most powerful stress hormones is Oxytocin
You read that right. The “bonding hormone” that is responsible for the feeling of elation that we relate to being in love, holding our newborn child, and hugging a loved one is also released with the stress response. How can this be?
It’s just another way to see stress as a friend. When we experience stress — whether it’s as a result of a failure, rejection, or great loss — oxytocin is released into the body, not as a way to reward us, but as a way to encourage us to ask for assistance. “And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support,” McGonigal states. “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that both of you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.”
The next time stress sets in and you begin to feel that all-too-familiar, overwhelming feeling reach out to a trusted friend and allow yourself to feel supported.
Sharing with others will save your life
This one is perhaps my favorite. A recent study in the US tracked 1,000 adults between the ages of 34 and 93 and asked them how often they experienced stress in the last year. Following that question, they asked how much time they had spent in that same year helping their friends, family, or community. Using public records for the next 5 years, they tracked who died. The results, as McGonigal share them, were pretty amazing:
“Okay, so the bad news first: For every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family crisis, that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. But — and I hope you are expecting a “but” by now — but that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Zero. Caring created resilience.”
The kabbalists have long taught that sharing with others is the path to living the most fulfilled, beautiful life that is possible. This study suggests that kindness, sharing, and wholehearted giving are the answer, especially in times of stress. When we share, in these difficult moments, we become like the Creator and any negativity that has arisen in our life is neutralized. We shift from dark to light in an instant.
Stress is an indicator to drop what you’re doing and share. It is not something to hide from or bemoan, but instead a built-in alarm system within your very physical body that is signaling you to give. It’s signaling you to connect. And it’s helping you rise above what you perceive as difficult.
THOUGHT INTO ACTION
This week, when stress arises, take a moment and try to shift your perspective. How is your stress helping you rise to the occasion? Who could you reach out to for support in the moment? Ask what you could do to support someone else. See what changes and share with me here in the comments.