car-up-treeDuring a recent study of the impact of stress on people, researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182K Americans died prematurely, not from stress but from the belief that stress is bad for us. Can changing how we think about stress make us healthier? The science says yes. When we change our mind about stress, we can change our body’s response.

Stress! It makes our hearts pound, breath quicken and our foreheads sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for us if we believe that to be the case. During a Harvard University social stress test, participants were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful. The pounding heart is preparing us for action and faster breathing is getting more oxygen to our brains. Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were not only less stressed, less anxious and more confident, but their physical stress response had changed. Their heart’s blood vessels did not constrict instead stayed relaxed. Their heart was still pounding but it actually looked a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage. Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living beyond 90. How we think about stress matters.

Stanford University Psychologist Kelly McGonigal sees stress positively and introduces a mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others. Stress makes us more social. The stress hormone oxytocin, AKA the “cuddle hormone”, is also released when we hug someone and it fine-tunes our brain’s social instincts. It primes us to do things that strengthen close relationships and makes us crave physical contact with friends and family. It enhances empathy and makes us more willing to help and support the people we care about. When oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating us to seek support. Our stress response is nudging us to tell someone how we feel, instead of bottling it up. It also helps us notice when someone else is struggling so that we can support them too. When life is difficult, our stress response wants us to be surrounded by people who care about us. Our heart also has receptors for oxytocin allowing it to act as a natural anti-inflammatory for our cardiovascular system. It helps blood vessels stay relaxed during stress, heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage as well as strengthens our heart. So when we reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, we release more oxytocin. Then our stress response becomes healthier, and we actually recover faster from stress. Our stress response has a built-in mechanism for resilience: human connections.

Research shows that stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others and when we choose to connect with others under stress, we can create resilience. When we view stress in that way, our body believes us and our response becomes healthier. We’re saying to ourselves that we can trust ourselves to handle life’s challenges. And we’re remembering that we don’t have to face them alone. Harmful effects of stress on our health are not inevitable. How we think and act can transform our experience of stress. When we choose to view our stress response as helpful, we create the biology of courage.

Humor: how do you identify a dog-wood tree? By its bark!