Can stress be positive?

Stress has a bad reputation, and researchers tend to agree that while it’s necessary, too much of it can be harmful for our health. But what if you could transform the way you approach stress so that it not only makes you feel more relaxed – but also reduces the impact it has on your body?

Three people in meeting with coffee

Numerous studies have highlighted the link between our perception of stress, and the effect that stress has on the body. What researchers have identified is that when you change the way you feel about stress, it can potentially be a lot more beneficial for your health and help you perform better.

Becoming friends with stress

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal is on a mission to help people view stress in a positive light, as a way to support their long-term health. In her famous Ted Talk ‘How to make stress your friend’, Kelly explains the life-changing tool of adopting a positive perspective when it comes to stress. You may be thinking ‘But if I didn’t think something was stressful, then I wouldn’t be stressed!’ - and you’re right, the research doesn't suggest that you can escape stress entirely with a positive attitude. But it does mean that when you change the way you think about the stress that you do experience, it has the potential to have a less harmful effect on your mind and body.

In the Ted Talk, Kelly mentions a study from the University of Wisconsin that initially inspired her to rethink her approach to stress management. The study kept track of the stress levels of 30,000 adults in the US over a period of 8 years – and whether they believed their stress was harmful to their health. In short, it was found that the people who experienced a significant amount of stress – but did not believe that stress was harmful to their health – had the lowest risk of mortality. These people experienced stress regularly, yet their lifespan was longer than those who experienced very low amounts of stress – simply because they believed it wasn’t harmful to their health.

From these findings, Kelly summarizes that when you change your mind about stress – you can actually change the way your body responds to stressful events. What this means exactly, is that when you practice experiencing stressful events from a more positive and productive perspective, it can actually have a completely different effect on your body – for the better.

Re-framing the stress response

The fight or flight response, also known as the stress response, helps the body react to any perceived stress. Despite its evolutionary purpose of keeping us safe in times of real danger, your stress response can be activated anytime you perceive stress. This means that while you're not at risk of being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger like your ancestors once may have been, you are exposed to subjectively smaller, more frequent stressors in your modern-day life. The typical fight or flight response consists of those signs of stress you may be familiar with – your heart rate increases, maybe your palms get sweaty and you become hyper-aware of your surroundings. Internally, your body has activated survival mode, and its gearing up to help you either fight or flee from any perceived danger. What most stress management gurus tell us is that this response is dangerous if we’re experiencing it often. While this may be true, a more realistic way to experience stress (because stress in life tends to be unavoidable) is to change what it means to you.

Since you now know that it’s your perception of stress that has a greater influence on your health than the stress itself, you can start to reframe your stress response and give it a more positive meaning. One life-changing truth that will help you integrate this into your life, is the fact that fear and excitement both share the same pathways in the body. This means that the adrenaline rush you feel when you’re excited (the butterflies in your stomach, that burst of energy you feel and the way your heart pounds) is similar to the hormonal surge that happens when you’re stressed or afraid. The way these two emotions, excitement and fear, present themselves is almost identical – the only difference is your perception of the situation. If you could only approach a stressful situation with the perception that you were excited instead, your stress response would be a lot more beneficial to your health long-term. While this isn’t always possible, research shows that you can anticipate stressful situations in a more productive and healthy way by changing your mind about stress itself.

Positive stress in action

In her Ted Talk, Kelly shared a Harvard study that followed students as they underwent a social stress test. All participants were taught to flip their mindset around stress and rethink the way they experienced it. While it may seem surprising that re-interpreting signals from the body would be enough to induce a biological response – that's exactly what happened. Rather than thinking of the classic signs of stress as harmful, participants were encouraged to view them as a helpful part of their response to new challenges.

The participants who learned to use stress as a tool to support their performance not only felt calmer, but they also experienced the stress response in a way that was healthier and less damaging. “It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage” is how Kelly describes their physiological measures after they had learnt to re-interpret stress.

Choosing to approach stress from a positive perspective isn’t about denying the fact that stress can be harmful, it’s about helping you experience it in a way that's less taxing on your body, and better for your health. While we don’t often get to choose the stress in our lives, we can control how we respond to it.

Other ways to manage how your body responds to stress

While reframing your mindset around stress sounds like a promising way to reduce the impact it has on your health, supporting your body’s resilience to stress is an important piece of the puzzle. A key way to support how your body responds to stress is to start with your cells. Your cell health influences how your entire body functions, and in order for you to have the energy reserves to combat whatever stress comes your way – your cells must be functioning optimally.

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