Dear Stress, I Love You

I am vowing to start a love affair with…stress. After all, most of us come face-to-face with some form of stress on pretty much a daily basis. We may as well learn to love anything (or anyone) we deal with that frequently. It makes life easier and, after watching Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk on the subject, I came to the conclusion that it’s the only logical—and healthy—thing to do.

There’s no question that a properly nourished body and mind is a great foundation for optimal health, and it helps prepare you for whatever life throws your way. This is why I say to my kids every morning, “We need to feed you and your brain before you head off to school.” Dr. Royal Lee speaks to this in his 1961 article, “The Level of Tolerance,” which you will find in the book, From Soil to Supplement, arranged and edited by Mark R. Anderson. Lee refers to nutrition as not only “the common denominator,” but also the most important factor in the well-being of our physical, biochemical, and mental selves, so to speak. When properly nourished, we thrive in all areas.

I would venture a guess that Kelly McGonigal, as a health psychologist, would be in full agreement with Dr. Royal Lee. In her TED Talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend,” she points to evidence suggesting that the way we approach stress affects our odds of living a long and healthy life. She cites this study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health as proof that how you perceive stress matters. The short version: if you choose to think it’s not harmful, it won’t be.

I know, I know. The ill effects of stress have been pounded into our heads for years now. Not only does it bring on certain chronic diseases, experts say, it also hinders your ability to recover from existing conditions. According to WebMD, the potential ailments you face by leading a stress-filled existence include:

  • Heart Disease
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma

In the study cited by McGonigal, researchers kept track of approximately 30,000 people over a period of eight years. Initial questioning elicited how much stress the participants experienced over the past year, and whether or not they perceived it as harmful. By tracking mortality outcomes over the next eight years, researchers discovered that a high level of stress did increase the likelihood of death by more than 40 percent. However, this link only emerged among those participants who initially stated a belief that stress was harmful. Those who reported high levels of stress, but who did not perceive it as detrimental, ended up with the lowest mortality rate of the entire group.

Now, changing the way you think about stress isn’t just about the “power of positive thinking.” There are some very real physical phenomenons associated with stressful events—but in McGonigal’s view, if you can change your perception of stress, you can change your body’s reaction to it. Your heart is still going to pound, and your breath is still going to quicken. However, if you think of these responses as your body’s way of energizing itself, preparing to meet the challenge it’s being faced with, the physical ramifications will be different.

Here’s an example. When a person who believes stress is harmful deals with a stressful situation, the blood vessels around the heart will constrict—just as they would during a cardiovascular episode such as a heart attack. For a person in the same situation who doesn’t perceive stress as harmful, the blood vessels remain open, looking the same as when a person experiences joy. That’s pretty cool.

The other side of this physical reaction has to do with the pituitary gland’s release of the hormone oxytocin. As McGonigal says, it’s been labeled the “cuddle hormone” because your body releases it when you give someone a hug. But it’s also a stress response. A flood of oxytocin will actually send you looking for someone to talk to. Someone who will listen, care, and support you. In other words, someone who will ease your stress. It’s like a built-in mechanism for our stress response to correct itself! That’s pretty cool too.

Though McGonigal doesn’t discuss this point specifically, I think it’s worth mentioning. There is a fair amount of evidence to support the idea that when you keep your body in a heightened state of emotion—good or bad—your glands and organs eventually throw up their proverbial hands in protest. Faced with stress, happiness, or grief, they’ll be right there, giving you what you need. But when such moments fade, your body needs time to relax and rejuvenate. Your glands and organs can only handle a certain amount of wear-and-tear before they need some chill time. Otherwise they get rundown and won’t function properly—if at all. This is why learning some coping skills to balance out our stressful lives is worth the time.

So, yes, be sure to eat a nutrient-dense diet and fill in any gaps with whole-food supplements, like the ones available to your healthcare provider through Standard Process. But don’t forget about the power of perception. Even a small shift in the way you look at life can have a positive impact on your health. The next time you’re faced with a nerve-racking scenario, pause long enough to give your stress a potentially life-changing message: “Dear Stress, I love you.” Then, instead of fretting, take action. Build on the healthy foundation you’ve already started. As the study I mentioned shows, embracing your stress only makes things better.

I don’t know about you, but this self-healther likes to think about how to live a healthy life and effectively deal with stress from all angles. I’ve been accused of being overly optimistic about most things in life—luckily for me. I like to think that such an attitude bodes well for how my body will react in times of stress. And I’ll take any leg-up I can get!

Does stress leave you tied up in knots? Or do you see it as a natural part of life—and maybe even as a great excuse to call up a friend and talk?

Photo from iStock/chuvipro

Paula Widish

Paula Widish, author of Trophia: Simple Steps to Everyday Self-Health, is a freelance writer and self-healther. She loves nothing more than sharing tidbits of information she discovers with others. (Actually, she loves her family more than that—and probably bacon too.) Paula has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Public Relations and is a Certified Professional Life Coach through International Coach Academy.

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