When we’re in a hurry to get somewhere on time or to finish off an important work assignment, the common signs of stress kick in. Our heart rate rises, we begin to breathe faster, we might start sweating or even getting a little shaky.
At times like this it’s easy to understand how stress can be bad for you and why it’s something we are told so often to avoid and to deal with better.
But new research has shown that it might not be stress that’s the killer.
Rather, it’s our perception of stress as being bad for us that is the problem. A study of 30,000 people in typically stressful lifestyles over an eight-year period showed that those who truly believed stress was damaging to their health were more likely to die prematurely than those who considered it as just a normal part of life.
The fact is, when that rising heart rate kicks in, it’s not our body’s way of saying, "Get a new job! Relax! You’re not coping.” It’s really just our brain trying to help us along by pumping more blood around our body for energy.
When we start breathing faster as the clock ticks closer to our deadline, it’s not a cause for worry, it’s just our body’s way of getting more oxygen to our brain.
That sweating or even shakiness is a sign that our adrenaline levels are at a high – not a sign that we are about to keel over.
If we didn’t react to high-energy situations like that, we’d probably never get anything done or meet the challenges that life sets us every day.
Health psychiatrist Kelly McGonigal gave a TED talk on this new way of viewing stress last year, in which she pointed out that our body’s reaction to challenging situations is actually very similar to our natural responses “in moments of joy or courage.”
So could it really work? It’s all well and good to take in this information now, when we’re not necessarily feeling much stress. But what about when we are actually overwhelmed with work and feel our heart rate creeping up? Could telling ourselves, “this is good for you, this is helping you along,” actually make a difference?
Kelly referred to a study in which participants were encourage to view their body’s changes during times of stress as healthy– and found that their heart’s blood vessels stayed more relaxed even while working to pump extra blood around their bodies. “When you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier,” she said.
We all have our own ways of coping, but even the most relaxed people among us can’t say they’ve never experienced the tell tale signs of stress. Next time you feel yourself getting anxious or overwhelmed by a task, try taking a moment to accept that your body is just trying to help you along, even though it mightn’t feel that way at the time.