Strategy

"Mom's spaghetti": 3 studies show how to use stress for good

When people experience stress their fight-or-flight response kicks into gear. You know the feeling: heart pounding, breath quickening, sweat dripping, pupils dilating ... It’s real “mom’s spaghetti” stuff.

Stress, and the bodily cascade it causes, gets a bad wrap when it activates too often and for too long. That's because there's a lot of literature showing chronic stress over a lifetime can make you sick, and contribute to diseases like diabetes and heart disease. It can also accelerate cellular aging, and ultimately, cut life short.

But some psychologists, like Kelly McGonigal, present an alternate theory: stress can be positive or negative, depending on how you think about it.

In her 2013 Ted Talk, McGonigal offers three actionable steps to leverage a stressful experience to your advantage:

  1. View the signs of stress as fuel to perform
  2. Use the energy created by stress for courage
  3. Use a stressful moment as the impetus to connect with others

With apologies to Eminem, I'm Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

Stress test — In the past few decades, increasing attention has focused on the relationship between stress and disease. But in a 2013 study, researchers went beyond exploring the physiological links.

In the study, published in the journal Health Psychology, researchers asked 30,000 adults in the United States to report the amount of stress they experienced the past year in addition to how they perceived stress. They asked: "Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?"

They tracked the group of participants for eight years and found that those experiencing a lot of stress and believed stress is harmful for their health had a 43 percent higher risk of dying.

"People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die," McGonigal explains in her Ted Talk. "In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress."

During the eight-year study period, the team estimates that 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you, she adds.

This striking finding suggests changing the way you think about stress can make you healthier.

Using stress for good— Another 2011 study shows reappraising how you interpret stress signals in the body can alter the way your body responds to stress.

In the study, participants instructed to reappraise or “rethink” arousal as functional exhibited increased perceptions of available resources, improved cardiovascular functioning, and less threat-related attentional bias. Essentially, the body used an acutely stressful moment for good.

McGonigal suggests stress can also have positive side effects because it "fine-tunes your brain's social instincts."

During the fight or flight response, the body also releases a range of stress hormones, including oxytocin.

"Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family," the psychologist explains. "It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about."

Stress can act as a social lubricant, bringing people together in moments of crisis.

At the end of the day, stress is an inevitable dimension of the human experience. Too much too often can wear on the body.

Conceptualizing stress as a source of energy, fuel for courage, and a signal to connect with others can lead to some surprising upsides from a typically negative experience.

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