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Stress Is Not Our Enemy Until We Think It Is

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, health psychologist at Stanford University gave a riveting TED talk which should be receiving far more recognition than it is because it merges science and the power of belief and directly relates these findings to the impact of stress in our lives.

"My fear is that something I’ve been teaching for the past ten years has been doing more harm than good," says McGonigal. "Basically, I’ve turned stress into the enemy. But I’ve changed my mind about stress, and today I want to change yours."

She cites the 2012 study that made her rethink her whole approach, "Does the perception that stress affects health matter?" by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It turns out that thinking that stress is bad for you is...really bad for you. Incredibly, she says, over the eight years of the survey, 182,000 people died prematurely from the belief that stress was bad for them. She extrapolates for us: If that estimate is correct, then believing this is so would have been the 15th largest cause of death in the United States.

McGonigal cites another 2012 paper, "Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal," published by scientists at Harvard’s department of psychology, and asks what might happen if we change the way we think about stress. "What if we thought about it as helpful?" she asks. Turns out, treating common stress responses as a positive might even be literally good for the heart. Why not recast the stress response as your body responding usefully to a challenge?

Another study "Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality," found that spending time socializing and caring for others can also create stress-related resilience.

"The harmful effects of stress on health are not inevitable," McGonigal says. "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."

McGonigal finally concludes with this incredible statement:
"Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows."

With evidence growing that training the mind or inducing specific modes of consciousness can have beneficial health effects, McGonigal's efforts in merging science and mindfullness are helping us further relate to the mind-heart-body connection.


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