As you probably know already, I do a lot of work around the importance of our mindset. How our thoughts and perspectives on the people and events around us largely determine both what we do and, importantly, how we feel doing it.
As our personal experiences make up our reality and our mindset feeds our experiences, our mindset is arguably the most important factor determining our levels of enjoyment, peace of mind and success!
Another thing you may have heard me bang on about is how important our stress levels are to our mindsets. How too much stress can cause all sorts of ill – from a common cold to depression and even lethal illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
Well, today I’m writing as I’ve recently had a massive aha moment!
Because I’ve just realised my perspective on stress may be completely wrong!
So I’m rethinking what the harm of stress really is. And by doing so I truly believe I will be able to handle stress, and protect myself from both physical and mental ill health, a whole lot better.
And I’d, of course, love to share this with you also!
A recent study in America was carried out on 30,000 adults over a period of 8 years. At the beginning of the study, everyone was asked “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” and “Do you believe that stress is harmful?”.
Now it gets a little morbid, but hang on in there and read on. I promise it’s worth it!
The researchers then used public death records to find out who died.
Those experiencing a lot of stress in the last year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. This, of course, goes very much along with the belief that indeed, stress is harmful to our health!
But this increased risk was only true for those who also had this negative belief. In other words, they believed stress is harmful for their health.
Those who had a lot of tress but did not think it increased their risk of dying were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying compared with people with relatively little stress.
The researchers estimated that over the 8 years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 people died prematurely, not because of stress but from the belief that stress is bad for us.
You can imagine my moment of aha when I came to realise that my warnings about the ill effects of stress, may in fact be the very thing that causes the problems. Not actually the stress itself!!
It also felt rather liberating.
Because with this new evidence, we are in much greater control. Realising that stress isn’t the enemy we’ve thought it is, as long as our thinking around it is healthy and correct, removes much of the worry.
Liberating indeed, as the stressors themselves are not always so possible to change or remove. But our thinking, our mindset, in this case is.
So, to change your mind about stress, you change your body’s response to stress.
Let’s look at this change in thinking a little deeper.
When we find ourselves in stressful situations, we naturally show physical signs of the stress. We may breath faster, our hearts may pound harder and we may break into a sweat.
Normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety and that we’re not coping very well.
But there is another way in which we can view these responses – that our body is energised and is preparing us to meet a challenge. That our pounding heart is preparing us for action. That our fast breathing is bringing more oxygen to our brain!
Participants in another study at Harvard University were told exactly this. They were taught to view their responses as helpful to their performance.
Well, they were less stressed out, less anxious and more confident!
But perhaps the most fascinating finding was how their physical stress response changed.
With a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels restrict. This is one of the reasons why chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. So it goes without saying that it’s not healthy to be in this state a long time.
The cardiovascular response in these participants, who viewed stress as helpful, was entirely different – their blood vessels remained relaxed!
Their heart was still pounding but it was a much healthier cardiovascular profile. In fact, it looked a lot like one that happens in moments of joy. And in moments of courage!
Over a life time of stressful events, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress induced heart attack at 50 and living healthily until 90.
And this is really what the new science of stress reveals. That how you think of stress matters.
So it’s not about getting rid of stress. It’s about getting better at it!
Now go off into the warmer months, hopefully packed with sunshine, and practice this new mindset.
One where you think of your stress response as your body getting ready to respond. That your body believes in you and equips you to deal with the stressful event! It’s getting you into peek performance mode!
Keep an eye out for my next blog as I’ll be sharing more gems about how stress actually helps us.