How to make stress your friend | Kelly McGonigal

How to make stress your friend | Kelly McGonigal


I have a confession to make. But first, I want you to make
a little confession to me. In the past year,
I want you to just raise your hand if you’ve experienced
relatively little stress. Anyone? How about a moderate amount of stress? Who has experienced a lot of stress? Yeah. Me too. But that is not my confession. My confession is this: I am a health psychologist, and my mission is to help people
be happier and healthier. But I fear that something
I’ve been teaching for the last 10 years
is doing more harm than good, and it has to do with stress. For years I’ve been telling people,
stress makes you sick. It increases the risk of everything
from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. Basically, I’ve turned stress
into the enemy. But I have changed my mind about stress, and today, I want to change yours. Let me start with the study
that made me rethink my whole approach to stress. This study tracked 30,000 adults
in the United States for eight years, and they started by asking people, “How much stress have you
experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress
is harmful for your health?” And then they used public death records
to find out who died. (Laughter) Okay. Some bad news first. People who experienced a lot of stress
in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress
is harmful for your health. (Laughter) People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people
who had relatively little stress. Now the researchers estimated
that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief
that stress is bad for you. (Laughter) That is over 20,000 deaths a year. Now, if that estimate is correct, that would make
believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death
in the United States last year, killing more people than skin cancer,
HIV/AIDS and homicide. (Laughter) You can see why this study freaked me out. Here I’ve been spending
so much energy telling people stress is bad for your health. So this study got me wondering: Can changing how you think
about stress make you healthier? And here the science says yes. When you change your mind about stress, you can change
your body’s response to stress. Now to explain how this works, I want you all to pretend
that you are participants in a study designed to stress you out. It’s called the social stress test. You come into the laboratory, and you’re told you have to give a five-minute impromptu speech
on your personal weaknesses to a panel of expert evaluators
sitting right in front of you, and to make sure you feel the pressure, there are bright lights
and a camera in your face, kind of like this. (Laughter) And the evaluators have been trained to give you discouraging,
non-verbal feedback, like this. (Exhales) (Laughter) Now that you’re sufficiently demoralized, time for part two: a math test. And unbeknownst to you, the experimenter has been trained
to harass you during it. Now we’re going to all do this together. It’s going to be fun. For me. Okay. (Laughter) I want you all to count backwards from 996 in increments of seven. You’re going to do this out loud, as fast as you can, starting with 996. Go! (Audience counting) Go faster. Faster please. You’re going too slow. (Audience counting) Stop. Stop, stop, stop. That guy made a mistake. We are going to have to start
all over again. (Laughter) You’re not very good at this, are you? Okay, so you get the idea. If you were actually in this study, you’d probably be a little stressed out. Your heart might be pounding, you might be breathing faster,
maybe breaking out into a sweat. And normally, we interpret
these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping
very well with the pressure. But what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge? Now that is exactly
what participants were told in a study conducted
at Harvard University. Before they went
through the social stress test, they were taught to rethink
their stress response as helpful. That pounding heart
is preparing you for action. If you’re breathing faster,
it’s no problem. It’s getting more oxygen to your brain. And participants who learned to view
the stress response as helpful for their performance, well, they were less stressed out,
less anxious, more confident, but the most fascinating finding to me was how their physical
stress response changed. Now, in a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels
constrict like this. And this is one of the reasons
that chronic stress is sometimes associated
with cardiovascular disease. It’s not really healthy to be
in this state all the time. But in the study, when participants viewed
their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels
stayed relaxed like this. Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier
cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage. 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. And this is really what the new
science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters. So my goal as a health
psychologist has changed. I no longer want
to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress. And we just did a little intervention. If you raised your hand and said you’d had a lot of stress
in the last year, we could have saved your life, because hopefully the next time
your heart is pounding from stress, you’re going to remember this talk and you’re going to think to yourself, this is my body helping me
rise to this challenge. And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response
becomes healthier. Now I said I have over a decade
of demonizing stress to redeem myself from, so we are going to do
one more intervention. I want to tell you about one of the most under-appreciated
aspects of the stress response, and the idea is this: Stress makes you social. To understand this side of stress, we need to talk about a hormone, oxytocin, and I know oxytocin has already gotten
as much hype as a hormone can get. It even has its own cute nickname,
the cuddle hormone, because it’s released
when you hug someone. But this is a very small part
of what oxytocin is involved in. Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone. It fine-tunes
your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships. Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact
with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing
to help and support the people you care about. Some people have even suggested
we should snort oxytocin… to become more compassionate and caring. But here’s what most people
don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part
of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes
your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released
in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell
someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants
to make sure you notice when someone else
in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you
to be surrounded by people who care about you. Okay, so how is knowing this side
of stress going to make you healthier? Well, oxytocin doesn’t only act
on your brain. It also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system
from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels
stay relaxed during stress. But my favorite effect on the body
is actually on the heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone
strengthens your heart. And the cool thing
is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced
by social contact and social support. So when you reach out
to others under stress, either to seek support
or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover
faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response
has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. I want to finish by telling you
about one more study. And listen up, because this study
could also save a life. This study tracked about 1,000 adults
in the United States, and they ranged in age from 34 to 93, and they started the study by asking, “How much stress have you
experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “How much time have you spent
helping out friends, neighbors, people in your community?” And then they used public records
for the next five years to find out who died. Okay, so the bad news first: For every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties
or family crisis, that increased the risk
of dying by 30 percent. But — and I hope you
are expecting a “but” by now — but that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related
increase in dying. Zero. Caring created resilience. And so we see once again that the harmful effects
of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress. When you choose to view
your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect
with others under stress, you can create resilience. Now I wouldn’t necessarily ask
for more stressful experiences in my life, but this science has given me
a whole new appreciation for stress. Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart
that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you
strength and energy. And when you choose to view
stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making
a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself
to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering
that you don’t have to face them alone. Thank you. (Applause) Chris Anderson: This is kind
of amazing, what you’re telling us. It seems amazing to me
that a belief about stress can make so much difference
to someone’s life expectancy. How would that extend to advice, like, if someone is making
a lifestyle choice between, say, a stressful job
and a non-stressful job, does it matter which way they go? It’s equally wise to go
for the stressful job so long as you believe
that you can handle it, in some sense? KM: Yeah, and one thing
we know for certain is that chasing meaning
is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. And so I would say that’s really
the best way to make decisions, is go after what it is
that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle
the stress that follows. CA: Thank you so much, Kelly.
It’s pretty cool. (Applause)

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