Birch: View stress as a good thing, it will improve your health

With the start of a new term, stress is in the air. Students have a lot on their plate with projects, homework and studying for tests. It is easy to become overwhelmed and feel burned out. 

Most people hate stress and try to avoid it at all costs because we see stress as something harmful to our health. We have been taught all our lives that if you feel stressed you should take a break or a breath. If someone breaks out or gets sick, we attribute it to stress. But the problem might not be the stress itself. 

Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal gave a Ted Talk on this idea — that stress can be good if we choose to look at it as such. Referring to studies on stress and perspective, McGonigal said, “People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.” The study revealed that it was not the stress itself that is harmful to our health, but our perspective of stress as damaging. 

This information might not seem very helpful, as stress is still not fun regardless of how damaging it is. It is difficult to think of stress in a positive way. 

Our response to stress often has physical characteristics such as heavy breathing, a pounding heart and tense muscles. We view these responses as negative, and when we feel them, we believe we need to calm down. 

Instead McGonigal asks, “What if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?” Stress does not have to signal that we are being tasked with something we can not handle, but can instead be a sign that we are prepared to deal with what we need to. 

“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress,” says McGonigal. In the study, when participants changed their perspective on stress, not only did their mental state such as anxiety and confidence improve, but also their physical health such as their cardiovascular response. Essentially, if you change your beliefs, you change your response. Your body believes how you view stress, so make sure it is in a positive manner. 

Another aspect of the stress response is that it releases a hormone called oxytocin or the ‘cuddle hormone'.

 “When oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support,” said McGonigal in her talk. When you are stressed, your body literally encourages you to go to a friend. 

If you are the kind of person who feels like a burden when you unleash your troubles onto loved ones, try to remember that seeking support is biologically beneficial to you and them. 

Experiencing stress at the start of a new term is inevitable, so give a change of perspective a try. Viewing your stress as helpful and seeking support might help you discover a whole new experience of being stressed; one that will probably make you happier but will definitely make you healthier.