To find out more about what actually stress is and how it can affect our body, check-out our previous blog post “What is Stress and how does it Affect our Body?”.
Some of our body’s reaction to stress (i.e. faster heart rate and breathing, and higher blood oxygen and sugar levels), is often referred to as the fight or flight response, and can actually help give us the extra ‘boost’ we need to successfully navigate challenging situations. However, if our brains perceive an ongoing threat, it is possible for our body’s stress response to continue for prolonged periods of time without ‘letting up’. This is sometimes (although not always) associated with poorer mental wellbeing and physical health outcomes.
There is emerging evidence to support the idea that the way we understand and relate to our own experiences of stress can actually have an important impact on how it affects our day-to-day life and physical health outcomes.
Beliefs about Stress
One study¹ found that people who experienced both high levels of stress and also believed that stress had a negative impact on their health were be at greater risk of dying prematurely. However, this was not the case for those that experienced a high amount of stress and did not believe that this stress had a negative impact on their health¹.
Another study2 found, in part, that people who believed that their body’s fight-or-flight type responses to a stress were functional and adaptive actually had stronger heart functions which were measured while they undertook a stressful public speaking task. This was compared to people who had been instructed to distracted themselves from these same fight-or-flight body sensations2.
The results of both these studies suggest that the way we think about and attend to our body’s responses to stressful situations may actually change the impact of this stress on our health.
Noticing and acknowledging our body’s responses to the stressful situation can be helpful in itself. This doesn’t mean that we have to like or want these body sensations (i.e. pounding heart, faster breath, ‘amped-up’ feeling). Rather, the point is to see if we can simply let these sensations be and maybe even make room for them.
This is all with the understanding that our body’s responses to stress are actually designed to help us. They provide us with the extra energy need to successfully navigate challenging situations.
Changing the way we think about and pay attention to our body’s stress responses is a skill that usually takes practice. Try and be gentle with yourself if you find this difficult.
Stress and Social Connection
Connecting with and helping others during times of stress may be beneficial for our health. A different study3 asked about participant’s level of stress and also how often they had spent time helping others during the previous 12 month period. This study found that stress did not predict the likelihood of death for those who provided help to others during the past year. However, stress did predict mortality among those who did not provide help to others2.
While, there are lot of other factors involved (which this study did make an effort to account for), it is likely that social connection and helping others during times of stress can be really helpful for our health.
It may sound simple (although actually quite challenging to achieve) and it is likely that you have heard it before; a healthy diet, regular exercise, and regular sleep patterns are important to building-up resilience against unhelpful stress.
How to know when to seek professional help managing stress?
It may be useful to consider seeking professional support if you find stress is adversely impacting your work performance, relationships with family and friends, or your emotional wellbeing.
1. Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31, 677-684. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374921/?ct=t(June_1st6_1_2015)&mc_cid=9ca1c1e1b6&mc_eid=e5cb5bb384
2. Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141, 417-422. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3410434/
3. Michael J. Poulin, Stephanie L. Brown, Amanda J. Dillard, and Dylan M. Smith. (2013). Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. American Journal of Public Health, 103, 1649-1655. http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2012.300876
Australian Government Health Direct Website: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/stress
Harvard Medical School Health Publications: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Ted Talk by Stanford University’s Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal: https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend