For years we’ve read how stress is bad for your health and kills people. However, several recent studies show that stress is not the source of harm. Studies indicate what actually harms people is the belief that stress is harmful.
In a Ted Talks video lecture by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, she discusses two studies that support this finding.
Here are some facts from the first study, done on 30,000 Americans over a period of eight years:
- The study asked participants whether they believed stress was harmful to their health
- The study asked the participants how much stress they experienced during the previous year
- Researchers used public health records to discover which participants died
- People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year showed a 43% increased risk of dying
- However, of this group, the increased risk of dying was only for those who believed stress was harmful to their health
- People who experienced stress but didn’t believe it was harmful had the lowest risk of dying in the study, including compared with people who experienced relatively little stress
- Based on the study’s statistics, researchers extrapolated that about 182,000 Americans died over this 8 year period (more than 20,000 a year) from the belief that stress harms
- The belief that stress harms ranked as the 15th cause of death, ahead of skin cancer, HIV, Aids and homicide
The second study conducted on 1,000 people between the ages of 34 and 93 also asked how much stress the participants experienced. It also asked whether you had taken care of someone else. The increased risk of dying for those experiencing stress was 30 percent, but this was not true of everyone. Those who helped or cared for someone else showed no percentage of chance for dying. In fact, human interaction strengthened close relationships, making people more compassionate and caring.
From a physiological perspective, when you view stress as helpful to your performance, the body produces increased amounts of oxytocin, a hormone that has a natural anti-inflammatory effect and helps blood vessels relax instead of constrict. Oxytocin also helps the heart repair damaged cells. The study found that oxytocin becomes more greatly produced when people reach out to others for help or when they help others. The social connection enhances oxytocin production.
Lynn Ingber is a psychotherapist based in Los Angeles. She offers help to individuals and couples through therapy and marriage counseling.