High stress levels almost double your chance of death! Ouch! Then I read on: only if you believe it will! Talk about the power of positive thinking – and that makes me feel guilty. Does it mean that not only have I had a lot of stress, but it's my fault if it makes me ill, because I didn't welcome disaster and sing about my favourite things?
But when I read the studies undefensively, I get a different picture. A hopeful one. Yes, cortisol the stress hormone that kickstarts the fight and flight reaction can be destructive, but it is also protective. According to Dr. Kelly McGonigal, patients brought to emergency at Akron hospital in Ohio following an accident who had high cortisol levels were less likely to develop PTSD. Heart surgery patients who were given additional cortisol beforehand recovered better.
Then there is a second hormone DHEA that helps our brains get stronger in response to stress. Dr. McGonigal explains that it is the ratio of the two that is crucial. We need higher DHEA – and how we feel about stress is what tips the balance.
So how do I change the way I think about stress? Especially, with the media screaming doom at me? Dr. M. says stress can be good for us, sharpen our wits and help us succeed. So looking back, when has stress helped me and how? When my back is to the wall and I have to act quickly, stress hones me, I feel an exaltation, I feel in the zone. Let's remember those times. And when is stress toxic for me? When I am dreading, panicking and imaging the worst and also when too much comes at once and my brain can't sort it.
So I have positive stress, when I feel in the driver's seat and negative stress, when I am squirrelling round in a cage, often when what's stressing me is under someone else's control. It's long been known that control, along with commitment and challenge, are key to stresshardiness, but that seems to me approaching from underneath. “I am worried sick – I could lose my job. I must feel strong and confident! How?”
It seems we need to change the way we tag stress. Stress is bad, destructive and leads to an early death has been parroted so long and so loud that we take it as a given. The sympathetic nervous system has been vilified. Yet, as my naturopath told me today, you need that cortisol rev up; if you are parasympathetic (calming system) dominant, you are unable to change, to act or to grow.
So what we need is to stop being afraid of stress and take stock of the times it has served us well. Count the ways it has worked FOR us and take that knowledge and firm it into a belief. Tell ourselves about the good times, feel that surety. When we feel the stress buzz, we shouldn't stifle it, because it is our body firing up preparing for action. Cortisol can be our fuel and our friend. We need to realize that life is not one calm note, but a symphony of effort and emotion.
Yes, Dr. McGonigal says, some of are born less stress hardy, but the upside is that this fine tuning also makes us richer in compassion and personal growth. Why else would the countries that report the highest stress levels also be the ones where people are happiest and live longer?
The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to get Good at it by Kelly McGonigal, PhD. This is a wonderful book and I have only touché den a fraction of its treasure.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal: Make Stress Your Friend. TED talk – link
Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality – link
Control, Commitment and Challenge – link