It’s long been accepted as fact: Stress is the enemy. It makes us fat, makes us anxious and depressed, weakens our immune systems, and leads to strokes and heart attacks. It destroys brain cells, hardens arteries, triggers tumors. It gives rise to terrifying best-sellers (Stress Pandemic), billions in psychotherapy bills, and a thriving cottage industry of squeezy balls and desktop Zen sand gardens. Simply put: Stress kills.
But now there’s a whole new school of thought on stress—counterintuitive, to some even shocking. It goes something like this:
• Stress can be good for you.
• Stress is essential.
• Stress can be an overwhelmingly positive force in your life. It can make you smarter, sharper, more successful, more connected and even happier. It can optimize your performance on the job and in your personal life. You just need to know how to use it to your advantage.
A slew of research over the past few years is changing just about everything we thought we knew about this most demonized of all human emotional states. “We’ve all been indoctrinated to believe that stress is always a very harmful thing,” says Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkley. “But that’s not necessarily true.”
Kaufer helped oversee a landmark 2013 study that found that certain types of acute stress in lab rats led to the creation of new neural stem cells in the hippocampus, a critical learning center of the brain. Weeks after exposing the rats to extreme stressors, they were extensively tested. Result: The memory of the stressed-out rodents ultimately improved, and they were better able to learn new tasks.
“The latest research shows that stress can actually boost alertness and cognitive performance,” Kaufer told Life Reimagined. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
Pioneering neuroscientist John Coates goes further. In an eye-opening op-ed piece for The New York Times, he wrote: “The stress response is such a healthy part of our lives we should stop calling it stress at all and call it, say, the challenge response.”
THE PERCEPTION GAME
So what determines whether stress is a killer or a savior? The answer: It all depends on the type and duration of the stressors. And, remarkably, even more crucial is how one perceives the stress itself.
Most scientists agree that the new positive findings apply primarily to intermittent rather than chronic stress—relatively short bursts of high-pressure situations rather than endless, constant stretches of maximal anxiety. Think: getting pumped for a big, do-or-die job interview versus longtime, grinding unemployment, or caring for a kid who has a scary but transitory illness versus caring for a child dealing with a lifelong condition such as autism.
It helps to understand the physiological changes our bodies go through when we’re severely stressed. Heart rates elevate and vessels dilate to speed blood to our muscles; systems get flooded with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. All of this contributes to the fight-or-flight response brought on by evolution—a surge of strength, alertness and stamina to help us deal with challenges or threats to our well-being, whether attacks from rampaging hyenas or working up the nerve to go in for a first kiss. But what happens when fight or flight becomes the norm?
“All of us have ‘stress barrels,’” says Dr. Alexander Loyd, author of the best-seller The Healing Code and the new book Beyond Willpower. As a psychologist, Loyd created a series of proprietary programs to help his patients tackle chronic stress and depression. “Biologically speaking, we’re supposed to go into fight or flight only once or twice a year. But if it happens too often, your stress barrel—the internal capacity to deal with these hormones and these emotions—gets full and starts overflowing. Once that happens you run the risk of breaking at the weakest link first.” The results can be catastrophic.
Loyd and others health care professionals have an abundance of strategies for emptying those barrels, ranging from specialized techniques (Loyd’s Healing Code is a proprietary holistic approach to stress management) to more traditional tactics like exercise, meditation, drug therapies or prayer. But lately another piece of the puzzle has come into place: perception.
“That’s why people can experience the same stressful events and have totally different reactions to them,” notes Loyd. “Two people can be caught in the same deadlocked traffic jam—one goes into road rage and the other is as calm as could be. Sometimes it comes down to a matter of how you process the stress you experience.”
THE POWER OF POSITIVE STRESSING
It’s the centerpiece of the new science of stress. In a highly influential study from the University of Wisconsin, 30,000 adults were tracked for eight years; at the onset, participants were asked how much stress they had experienced within the last year and whether they believed stress was harmful for their health. Researchers used public health records to find out who died over the next eight years. The bad news: Those who had experienced a ton of stress over the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of death overall.
But here’s the (very) good and startling news: that increased mortality rate only applied to those who believed that their stress was harmful to them. People who went through lots of stressful stuff but didn’t view the experiences as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest death rates of anyone in the study—and that includes those lucky souls who reported no stress whatsoever.
“You can see why this study freaked me out,” Stanford University psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal told a rapt crowd during a TED talk. “Here I’ve been spending so much energy telling people stress is bad for your health … This got me wondering: Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? The science says yes. When you change your mind about stress you can change your body’s response to stress.”
A recent Harvard research study backed this up: Before enduring some high-anxiety public speaking, volunteers were taught to rethink their mental and physiological responses—pounding hearts, faster breathing, increased sweat—as helpful to their performance rather than hurtful. Not only did they perform markedly better than the control group, their blood vessels constricted way less. “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 well into your 90s,” says McGonigal, whose upcoming book The Upside of Stress is devoted to such ideas.
“My goal as a health psychologist has changed,” she says. “I no longer want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress.”
To Firdaus Dhabhar, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford, such studies are a validation of what he has come to believe over the course of 20 years studying the biology of stress. “Mother Nature didn’t give us a stress response in order to kill us,” he says. “It gave us a stress response to help us survive.”