Ted Talk with Dr. Kelly McGonigal: How to Make Stress Your Friend

Photo Credit: Unsplash User  Chayene Rafaela

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Chayene Rafaela

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, is known for her work in the field of ‘science help’. This focuses on translating insights from psychology and neuroscience into practical strategies that support health and wellbeing.

A long time advocate of self-compassion and mindfulness as stress-coping strategies, Dr. Kelly McGonigal has altered her previous focus on the problematic aspects of stress, as she discusses in this TED Global presentation. She emphasizes the importance of an individual’s subjective belief in themselves as someone who is able to cope successfully as being a crucial factor in their actual response to stress.

Having spent years telling people that stress will make you sick, Dr.McGonigal was shocked when she read the results of a study which tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years.

The researchers started by asking people, “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?” They then used public death records to find out who died.

The results showed that people who believed that stress is harmful for your health, and had experienced a lot of stress in the previous year, had a 43% increased risk of dying. Over the eight years they were tracking deaths, this came to over 20,000 deaths a year.

A Harvard University experiment used two test groups in a study, one of which was put in a stressful exam situation where they were subjected to criticism and pressure, and told that their stress responses indicated anxiety and inability to cope. The other group was taught to rethink their stress response as helpful. They were told that the pounding heart is preparing you for action and breathing harder is getting more oxygen to your brain. Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident, and their physical stress response changed.

Dr. McGonigal comments, “Now, in a typical stress response, your heart rate goes up, and your blood vessels constrict like this. 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 like this. 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.”

The other fascinating thing that has been demonstrated is that stress makes people more social, due to release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone which fine-tunes the brains’ social instincts and primes us to do things that strengthen close relationships. Oxytocin makes individuals crave physical contact with their friends and family and enhances empathy. It makes a person more willing to help and support the people they care about. But oxytocin is a stress hormone. The pituitary gland releases is as part of the stress response, along with the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it motivates the individual to seek support. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you. And it is also a natural anti-inflammatory. It helps blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. Moreover, the heart has receptors for the hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage, strengthening the heart.

She adds that the physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when a person reaches out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, they release more oxytocin, their stress response becomes healthier, and they recover faster from stress.

She closes with the results of a third study, which tracked 1,000 adults in the United States ranging from 34 to 93. They started by asking “How much stress have you experienced in the last year?” They also asked, “How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbours, and people in your community?” They then used public records for the next five years to find out who died. People who spent time caring for others, unlike those who didn’t, showed no stress-related increase in dying. The results indicated that caring created resilience.

Dr. McGonigal notes, “The old understanding of stress as an unhelpful relic of our animal instincts is being replaced by the understanding that stress actually makes us socially smart – it’s what allows us to be fully human. Her conclusion is that chasing meaning in your life is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort, and her advice is to go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.