In Sight

How to Make Stress Your Friend

Research indicates that changing how you think about stress can make you healthier, more courageous and resilient.

New Perspective—Health psychologist Kelly McGonial gives a TED Talk on how to use stress to your advantage, June 2013


by Kelly McGonigal

I have a confession to make. My confession is this: I am a health psychologist, and my mission is to help people be happier and healthier. But I fear that something I’ve been teaching for the last 10 years is doing more harm than good, and it has to do with stress. For years I’ve been telling people stress makes you sick. It increases the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. Basically, I’ve turned stress into the enemy. But I have changed my mind about stress, and today, I want to change yours.

Let me start with the study that made me rethink my whole approach to stress. This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years. People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43-percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.

Now the researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you. That is over 20,000 deaths a year. Now, if that estimate is correct, that would make believing stress is bad for you the 15th largest cause of death in the United States [in 2012], killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.

So this study got me wondering, Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? And here the science says yes. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.

Now to explain how this works, I want you all to pretend that you are participants in a study designed to stress you out. It’s called the social stress test. If you were actually in this study, you’d probably be a little stressed out. Your heart might be pounding, you might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat. And normally, we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren’t coping very well with the pressure.

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.

But what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge? That is exactly what participants were told in a study conducted at Harvard University. Before they went through the social stress test, they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful. That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you’re breathing faster, it’s no problem. It’s getting more oxygen to your brain. And participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, well, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident, but the most fascinating finding to me was how their physical stress response changed.

Now, in a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict. And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease. It’s not really healthy to be in this state all the time. But in the study, when participants viewed their stress response as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. Their heart was still pounding, but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile. It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy and courage. Over a lifetime of stressful experiences, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90s. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.

So my goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress. Hopefully the next time your heart is pounding from stress, you’re going to remember this talk and you’re going to think to yourself, “This is my body helping me rise to this challenge.” And when you view stress in that way, your body believes you, and your stress response becomes healthier.

I want to finish by telling you about one more study. And listen up, because this study could also save a life. This study tracked about 1,000 adults in the United States, and they ranged in age from 34 to 93, and they started the study by asking, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbors, people in your community?”

OK, so the bad news first: For every major stressful life experience, like financial difficulties or family crisis, that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent. But that wasn’t true for everyone. People who spent time caring for others showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Zero. Caring created resilience.

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. Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). Find the complete version of this talk on www.TED.com.