Stanford University psychologist and stress expert, Kelly McGonigal, has had a change of heart, one so significant that it just might change the hearts – and health – of millions who suffer each year from a host of stress-related conditions.
“I fear that something I’ve been teaching for the last 10 years is doing more harm than good,” said McGonigal, during her hugely popular TED talk given this past June in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“For years I’ve been telling people, ‘Stress makes you sick. It increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease.’ Basically, I’ve turned stress into the enemy. But I’ve changed my mind about stress. And today, I want to change yours.”
Given the endless flood of information about the downside of stress, taking on such a challenge seems ambitious. For McGonigal, however, it is imperative.
Her shift in thinking began when she read a 2012 study that tracked the lives of 30,000 U.S. adults over an eight-year period. Participants were simply asked how much stress they experienced during the previous year and whether or not they believed stress was bad for their health.
Predictably, those who reported significant levels of stress had a 43% greater risk of dying. However, this was only true for those who believed stress was harmful. Those who reported a lot of stress but didn’t view it as harmful actually had a lower risk of dying than anyone else in the study, including those who reported low levels of stress. Researchers estimate that during the time it took to complete their study, 182,000 Americans died prematurely – not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you.
“This study got me wondering,” said McGonigal. “Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? And here the science says, ‘Yes.’ When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”
Although the balance of her talk focused largely on the biological factors involved, the underlying and overriding theme was the impact of our thoughts on both our mental and physical well being.
Especially interesting was a very recent study McGonigal cited showing that, even in cases involving high levels of reported stress, those who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying.
“Caring created resilience,” said McGonigal. “And so we see once again that the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress.”
So what is it that inspires someone to think differently about stress? What compels the compassion that reduces and even eliminates its presumed effects?
An intriguing possibility might be found in a growing body of evidence suggesting that those who keep their thoughts open to divine inspiration are perhaps less inclined to be overwhelmed by stressful circumstances and more inclined to be compassionate toward others.
This is no new discovery, of course. More than two thousand years ago, the prophet Jeremiah was able to maintain a level head and sound body even while under constant threat of an invading army.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you,” he was told by God, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Not only did these words provide Jeremiah with some much-needed assurance, it enabled him to lend encouragement, support – and healing – to many of his fellow countrymen as well.
Although McGonigal was by no means suggesting that anyone seek out stressful situations as a means of gaining or maintaining health, she did emphasize the fact that we need not be overcome by these situations.
“You can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges,” she said. “And… you don’t have to face them alone.”
Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear weekly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. This article originally appeared on Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com and is used with permission.
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