Mindset Family Therapy

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How to Make Stress Your Friend


I recently discovered a talk given by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist.  Her topic was stress.  I felt validated as I have been telling my clients who experience stress to make it their friend.  I usually teach them skills to change their attitude towards stress or anxiety.  It is their attitude that will make the difference.

McGonigal reports that for the past 10 years she has been teaching that stress makes people sick.  However, she changed her approach towards stress after reading a study.  She discovered that indeed, stress is harmful, but only when people believe it’s harmful.  Below are the most relevant points in her talk.

1.  If we believe that the physiological sensations and feelings we experience when we are stressed are helpful for us, it makes a difference in our physiological well-being.  We need to look at the physiological responses as signs that our body is energized and is preparing us to meet the challenge at hand.

I usually teach my clients about the fight-or-flight response and explain that this is our natural way to respond to danger.  I teach them to reframe their thoughts regarding their physiological response.  McGonigal quotes research and findings that confirm people’s attitude is essential.  She suggests that people need to remember that their breathing may get heavier with stress because they are getting more oxygen to their brain.

Our attitude towards the stress response we experience is helpful for our performance.  It helps us be less anxious and more confident.  She mentions a study conducted at Harvard University.  It showed how participants view of their own physiological response to stress made a difference in their blood vessels.  They were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful.  Their blood vessels stayed relaxed just like they do in moments of joy and courage.  Bottom line is that when our view of stress is positive, our body believes it, and our stress response becomes healthier.

2.  The hormone oxytocin makes a difference as well. This hormone helps us strengthen our emotional bond with our friends and relatives. It’s usually called the cuddle or love hormone, but it’s also a stress hormone like adrenaline.

When we feel stress, oxytocin is released and leads us to find support from our friends or family members.  It leads us to seek out someone so we can share our troubles and stress.  Oxytocin also helps us notice when someone else needs that support as well.  Oxytocin not only affects our brain but also our body.  It helps decrease inflammation in our body.

Bottom line is that if we want oxytocin to do its job, we need to remember that the benefits are enhanced by social contact and social support.  Our body will release more oxytocin when we reach out for support or when we help someone else.

The harmful effects of stress on our health can be avoided by changing our attitude and what we do about it.  At the end of her talk, a gentleman asked her a question.  Her response resonates with me and I wish all my clients could understand her statement when she said, “chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.  …the best way to make decisions is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

This is not easy if you suffer from anxiety disorders, but it can be done with a lot of work and desire to improve one’s life. There is always hope and you can do it!

Feel free to watch the video.  It’s only 14 minutes long.