Is stress good for you?
A life without stress!
it's the Lotto jackpot-winning dream, isn't it? We want banking to be stress-free and spa breaks to de-stress, and we even use stress-busting scents. In the quest for happiness, stress is to be avoided at all costs. Stress is the enemy, right?
Perhaps not. According to a ground-breaking new book, every negative thought you've had about sweaty, heart-racing, stressful scenarios is wrong and, instead of cowering under the duvet hiding away from stress, we should be embracing success as our friend.
It's a fascinating revelation that's the subject of health psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal's book, The Upside Of Stress: Why Stress Is Good For You And How To Get Good At It and her TED talk, which has been viewed over eight million times.
In the 14-minute talk, she cites a study conducted in the US, whereby a group of 30,000 adults were asked how much stress they had in their lives and whether they believed stress was harmful. Over the course of eight years, it was found that those who had a high levels of stress had high risk of dying BUT that was only true if they thought stress was harmful.
Those who had a high level of stress, but crucially did not view it as negative, had no higher risk of dying and in fact had the lowest level of risk in the whole group, even lower than those with a relatively low level of stress.
In other words, it's not stress, but how you think about it that will kill you.
Here's another one. Research by Harvard University found that respondents taught to see their stress response as helpful - the pounding heart rushing oxygen around the body to prepare it for a challenge - didn't experience the narrowing of blood vessels that often causes stress to be associated with cardio-vascular disease.
McGonigal's third piece of evidence is the role of the neuro-hormone oxytocin in times of stress. Well known as 'the cuddle hormone', oxytocin, just like adrenalin, is released under stress, acting as a natural anti-inflammatory. It helps blood vessels stay relaxed and boosts heart-cell regeneration. It also motivates us to reach out to other people.
"I find this to be amazing, that the stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience and that mechanism is human connection," says McGonigal. "Science," she insists, "has given me a whole new appreciation for stress."
It's a compelling message but not one everyone is completely on board with it. Dr Samantha Dockray is a lecturer in the School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork and has a special interest in health and wellbeing during times of stress. She says a major problem with changing the way we think about stress is that not everyone is adept at it.
"It's not that simple," she explains. "Changing how we think about stress relies on the person having quite a set of character traits and skills. But often people who have the highest level of poor outcomes - such as health problems - as a result of stress are those who have the lowest level of existing psychological resources and are the least able to turn their thinking around.
"It's a similar challenge that we face in positive psychology - those who are able to develop positive approaches and turn their thinking on stress are intrinsically different to people who can't."
Moreover, not all of us are as able, as they appear to have been in the eight-year study, at identifying levels of stress.
Dr Dockray continues: "Not everyone recognises when they're stressed. There's compelling evidence that job stress can constitute sufficient stress for heart attacks, diabetes and premature cognitive decline - but the source of their stress is so much a part of their life that they don't realise."
The problem is that stress is a permanent fixture in many people's lives today. The 'living on adrenalin/ trying to be all things to all people' scenario is so common in females that it's been dubbed Rushing Woman's Syndrome by nutritional biochemist Dr Libby Weaver, who says women are putting such pressure on their nervous system that its affecting their health, from PMS to IBS and mental wellbeing.
Andy Gibson author of the new book A Mind for Business believes it's actually pressure, not stress, that we need to make friends with.
"It's important to recognise the distinction between stress and pressure," he says. "Whenever we face pressure, we ask ourselves whether we can find the resources to handle it. If we do, it feels like a challenge; if we don't, we get stressed. A little bit of stress is not good for you. Pressure is motivating but stress is the sign the pressure has got too much."