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Sunday, February 16, 2014

How to Deal With Stress by Changing How You Feel About It

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Photo: psychologies.co.uk

We all know stress can hurt us. But I recently learned we might be much better at dealing with stress if we change our attitudes about what stress means. In fact the harm stress does to our health may be caused more by our being stressed about stress, than the original stress itself.

Sound like I'm talking in circles? Well, I just listened to a TED Talk by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal, entitled "How to Make Stress Your Friend." McGonigal confessed that after years of counseling about stress, she may have been wrong. Stress may not be the villain we think it is.
If this sounds startling, McGonigal says she was "freaked out" herself by the idea that stress could be a good thing. But her change of heart came as a result of an eight year study on 300,000 people in the U.S, all with different levels of stress.

The researchers asked the participants how stressed they considered themselves to be, and also whether or not they viewed stress as harmful to their health. Then over the course of the eight years, they tracked which participants died, and compared the death rates against the answers to their questions.
Sure enough, the people who were under a lot of stress, and also felt stress was harmful were significantly more apt to die prematurely. But surprisingly, the people who had a lot or stress, but didn't think of it as harmful, had lower death rates than the people with very little stress at all.

The Heart and Stress
We've probably all experienced our heart racing and pounding when we feel overly stressed. Over time this is what contributes to much stress related heart disease, and stroke.

The cardio-vascular effects of stress on the bodies of study participants, however, were markedly different depending on their attitudes about their stress. The blood vessels of those who believed themselves to be harmed by stress became contracted, severely limiting blood flow to their brains. But the arteries of the people who did not believe stress was harmful remained relaxed when they were under stress. Their hearts did still race, but each beat carried the blood and oxygen they needed to meet whatever challenge they were facing.

According to McGonigal, this ability to let stress pump more blood without constricting the blood vessels is the same reaction the body experiences when we feel joy, or courage. It is also what happens when we do aerobic exercise. We have to get our heart rate up to make it stronger, and a stronger heart means better health.

We experience physical stress when we lift weights, run alongside our kids as they learn to ride a bike, or carry in a load of groceries. And the more we do those things, the more we can continue to do. We don't think about those kinds of stress as harmful. We may not think of them as stressful at all.

Could changing your attitude lessen the harm of your stress?
For one thing, worrying about the stress you already have just dumps more unnecessary stress on top of whatever else you are dealing with. So dropping the worry alone is a positive move. Understanding that your heart is pounding to help you might give you more courage, knowing you will be strong enough to face stress as it comes.

We could acknowledge our stress as a signal to take action. You could sit and fret about your problems, or use the stress signal to get up and try to fix them. We almost always feel better as we move to get things done.

We could use our stress signals to remind us to breathe deep or meditate more. We could use it fuel us into a brisk walk, to get our blood pumping for all the right reasons. Whatever methods we use to deal with our stress now, the idea that stress could be our friend is certainly worth considering.
In my next article, I will review the second part of McGonigal's TED Talk, where she explains how a particular stress hormone actually keeps us connected with each other.
You can watch the entire uplifting talk at:

http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend.html.
If you found this article helpful, please leave us a comment. We appreciate hearing from you. And don't forget to share us with your social media friends.

For more tips and great information on how to deal with stress, check out ClearYourStress.com. You'll also find many guided exercises and meditation methods to relieve stress, connect with your inner wisdom, and enjoy a balanced lifestyle. Visit ClearYourStress.com now to get started.
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