Friday, January 31, 2014

Making stress my friend?!

I saw a TEDtalk from Kelly McGonigal and it is really making me think.  Watch the video.  It is 14 minutes long.  What she is saying is that we can use stress to our best advantage health-wise, just by changing our beliefs about stress itself.  I have seen beliefs make huge changes in people mental health-wise, but can beliefs change us physically as well?

Let's look at one study published in the European Heart Journal.  Just over 7,000 people were followed for 18 years and asked about their perceptions on stress.  Then, researchers looked at the participants' risk of cardiac disease and death.  Those that believed that stress has affected their health "a lot or extremely" were more likely to die of a heart attack.  Risk of heart attack, in fact, doubled.  This was found independent of other biological risk factors. Researchers stated that "people's perceptions about the impact of stress on their health are likely to be correct."  In other words, if you believe stress is harmful, it will be!  Read more on this study here.

Another study, the one that Kelly McGonigal is referring to, was published in Health Psychology and tracked 30,000 participants for 8 years.  Researchers concluded that people who have high incidences of stress and believe that stress is harmful have higher risks of dying prematurely.  How much higher?  43%!

Participants were surveyed yearly on how much stress they experienced over the past year.  They were then asked how much they believe the stress effected their health.  Participants were asked whether they attempted to cope with the stress in some way.  They were asked about their physical health over the past year as well as their mental health.  Ultimately, the self-report of physical health was merely about perception.  The real data marker researchers used was simply public death records - mortality.

Participants who reported stress, also reported poor health and psychological distress.  However, participants who reported they made attempts to cope with stress, were less likely to report poor physical health.  Might be that if we perceive we can cope with stress, we have fewer health effects.

Now, let's look at mortality.  It is important to note that just looking at stress levels did not predict mortality.  Nor, did just looking at one's belief that stress is harmful.  It is the two together that predict that 43% higher rate of premature death.  If one has a lot of stress and believes that stress is harmful, then premature death is more likely.  Read the study here.

This is not a causal relationship, so far.  This type of study can not ascertain cause.  But, it does indicate a very close relationship.  Because the relationship is within your control, why not make some changes?  Researchers theorize that what has been studied in psychology for years is likely present here as well.  People who expect negative things to happen to them, see negative things happening all the time.  It is hard to see the positive in life for these people.  They are likely to see their health as poor, their stress as too high, and their ability to cope as useless.   It's that old self-fulfilling prophecy thing.

In addition, there is resiliency or the ability to cope and overcome.  Might be that seeing stress as something one can overcome makes it less, well, stressful.  A biggie in the mental health field and in education is locus of control.  If I see events not as things that continually happen to me, coming at me from the outside world with me having no ability to control, I am much more able to cope and much more likely to see life optimistically.  However, having an external locus of control, causes people to see life pessimistically.  Negative events just keep happening and I am the victim.  Pretty stressful way to see life right?

Let's look at the stress response briefly.  The system is flooded with stress hormones.  We think all of these hormones are bad for us.  Truth is, it is more complicated than that.  Any feeling we have, is actually a complicated cocktail of hormones.  So, those "good" hormones can be present in bad feelings and "bad" hormones can be present in good feelings.  Example, oxytocin.  Oxytocin is considered a "good" hormone.  It makes us feel loving.  It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  However, it is released when stress is present.  You can learn more about that by watching Kelly's TEDtalk.  Others present will be adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine, etc.  Ok, back to the stress response.  Once the stressful event is over, all of this goes away and a different dose of hormones is present.

Here's where I see and I interpret the information and research differently from Kelly McGonigal.  She says we only need to change our beliefs about stress.  Make stress your friend.  I say there is a two-pronged strategy to take. Change your beliefs and get better at coping.

Let's look at the person who is optimistic, who feels s/he can cope, who is resilient and knows the stressful event will end.  This person's stress response will end appropriately once coping mechanisms are in place and positive belief systems take over.  The person who is pessimistic, has poor coping skills, and feels a victim to stressful life events will not be able to turn off the stress response.  A constant exposure to the stress hormone cocktail is deleterious to physical health.  Eventually, this will cause health issues - poor heart health, weak immune response, digestive problems and more.  Not only that, why bother with healthy choices?  Why eat well?  Why exercise?  We're all gonna die anyway, right?  So, what we each need is to be able to cope better and we need to believe we can overcome stress successfully.

We need an arsenal of coping mechanisms for stress.  I am not going to address these here, because I covered what you can do to take control of the stress response in my August blog.  Read it and make yourself a "tool belt" of coping skills.

We also need to address our belief systems - believing stress is harmful, seems to make it more harmful.  If you don't yet believe what I've shared here, educate yourself on this research.  Educate yourself on how the brain works.  Start creating optimism.  If you complain, stop complaining.  Place a bracelet/rubber band on your wrist for every complaint.  Eventually, train yourself to get to a day that is complaint free.  Create affirmations:  "I believe, I can cope."  "My body is strong and healthy and can handle this stress."  "I can get through this.  I am strong."  You get the idea, right? When you think negative thoughts, change them to positive thoughts. Try gratitude.  This is a great way to become more optimistic, to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to have some faith.  Focus on what is positive and present each day - from the tiniest things, to the big things, to things normally taken for granted, to the obvious.  There are gratitude programs available online.  There are books on gratitude.  Plenty of resources out there.  This isn't about losing touch with reality.  Reality is positive as well as negative.  We only have so much attention - how about more of the attention going in a positive direction and less going in the negative direction, for the sake of good health?

If having large amounts of stress and believing stress is harmful have such a strong unhealthy relationship, it is time to take your mental and physical health under your control.  Stress will happen.  It will likely happen today and probably tomorrow.  Saying big deal, I can handle it and then doing so reduces negative health effects.  Learn to deal and learn to believe!

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