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The upside of Stress

I consider myself to be a very positive person who understands and fully appreciates that the hard times serves us equally as the good times do. But twenty years ago, when my mother died prematurely from a massive brain hemorrhage, I found it very hard to believe that there was any upside to anything let alone stress. I was, and continue to be,  convinced that stress, among other health factors, was one of the biggest contributors to her untimely death. She even told me the day before she died that “she couldn’t take this anymore”, not referring to anything other then life itself. I became the local ‘stress police’ and my message of health, as it was for many health care providers, became this –  all aspects of stress are bad.

As it turns out, I was misinformed – until now! Recent research out of Harvard University has shed some light on the upside of stress. We have come a long way in the last 20 years in understanding how the body responds to both stress and eustress (the good stress that is also vital to our overall wellbeing). Unfortunately with all those years of negative messages that stress is bad and harmful to your health has left us believing that our stress responses are going to kill us. The latest research highlights some key findings, most importantly, that in most cases, it is our belief, not the actual manifestations that are killing us. Sound confusing? The study done at Harvard tracked 30,000 adults over eight years and asked its study participants the following questions: a) do you have a lot of stress in your life and, b) do you believe that stress is harmful to your health? They then  referenced public death records to see who died. The outcome…43% of those who had a lot of stress and also believed that stress was harmful to their health from the study had died. Those who had an equal amount of stress in their lives but did not believe that stress was harmful to their health were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death then anyone else in the study.

In this study, they set up a typical situation where we would experience stress (a math test with many stressful variables) but before the participants went into the study they were told that the bodies responses they were going to experience were simply energizing the body and preparing them for the challenge ahead. The most important aspect of the study is this – if you can change your mind about stress you can ultimately, change your bodies response to stress.

We know that during stressful situations, the body naturally releases Oxytocin (also termed the ‘cuddle’ hormone). Oxytocin produces the calm you feel when you pet your dog or when you snuggle with your children or overall when you ‘recharge your batteries’ with your loved ones. It was found during the Harvard study that Oxytocin production was increased when people believed that their stress response was being helpful – it helped keep their blood vessels relaxed to ensure optimal performance. It was also discovered that the increase level of Oxytocin in the blood stream helps us to reach out for help from others in times of stress. It was suggested that helping others, which increases the level of oxytocin, helps us in times of difficulty.  The levels of Oxytocin that were released in the study participants was the same levels that people experience in moments of joy and courage. So, much like our bodies natural response to infection is fever – one of our natural responses to stress is Oxytocin – we just need to acknowledge it’s purpose and trust that it is doing its work!

This post in no way suggests that we should no longer continue to manage our stress effectively. Instead, we need to learn to be better at stress by understanding how our stress responses are setting us up for success.  I do know that my mother could have really used this advice and so I felt compelled to pass this along to anyone who is interested!