Stress. It's the current catch-all culprit pinned to so many negative health conditions. Can't you just see it smirking in the corner of the room with a slightly guilty, yet secretly pleased expression?
The good news is there's a way to turn that smirk into a smile on your face. For starters, new research shows it's not the stress level you experience that affects your health, but rather how you think about the stress that is ultimately beneficial or harmful.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal is now urging people to see stress as a positive. In a recent TED talk she said, "For years I've been telling people 'stress makes you sick!' ...But I've changed my mind."
Why? She looked at a study that tracked 30,000 adults over eight years. The study asked participants the simple question: "Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?" They also tracked death records for these people over the eight-year period. The ironic outcome: people who died from stress died not from stress but from the belief that stress was bad for them. Those who didn't believe it was harmful experienced no negative effects on their health.
So Dr. McGonigal asked herself the obvious question: "Can changing how you think about stress, change the outcome?"
She became more convinced of an affirmative answer to that question after looking at another study where researchers analyzed the physiological response of people who were undergoing extreme stress but thought of it in a positive way. The result? They experienced the same physiological response associated with extreme joy.
She also discovered, based on yet another study, that people have a "built in mechanism for stress resilience." Turns out your personal connections to the people you love and the simple act of giving to others can actually antidote the negative effects of stress.
Dr. McGonigal concludes, "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."
This is good news. Most health professionals I speak with use the "S" word to describe a whole host of health issues that come across their doorstep. On the other hand, many of them also see and point out the value of a person's state of thought -- whether they practice gratitude, forgiveness, love and connection -- as a key component of health and well-being.
This isn't exactly new material. Think of Shakespeare's wisdom that "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Or this affirmation by 19th century Christian religious thought leader, Mary Baker Eddy: "Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts." (See #9 on: "10 Positive Thinking Books That Might Change Your Life.")
In his book, Change Your Mind: It's All In Your Head, (2006) Mark Pettus, M.D., writes: "It's long been known and universally accepted, for example, that stress in our lives can wreak havoc in every dimension of our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellness." But he says, "To change your behavior in a positive way, it's essential to understand how behavior and biology interact."
Dr. Pettus goes on to recognize, "It's hard to imagine a better antidote to the biologic stress in our lives than cultivating networks of supportive relationships."
According to Psych Central, those networks of supportive relationships are often found in church fellowship and prayer. Associate editor Therese J. Borchard writes, "faith attaches meaning to events. It gives folks hope, the ultimate stress reducer. Hope, doctors say, is about the best thing you can do for your body. It's better than a placebo."
Perhaps for the nearly 50 percent of Americans who reportedly pray about their health, cultivating a relationship with God is validated by the scriptural promise: "You will guard him and keep him in perfect and constant peace whose mind [both its inclination and its character] is stayed on You."
So go ahead, you decide if stress is the bad guy.