I spend a lot of time with clients talking about stress, simply because stress is so often a trigger for habits people want to break (food habits, cigarettes, anger, headaches, etc.)
Dealing with stressors we have some control over is one kind of problem; dealing with the ones we have no control over requires figuring out how to turn the stress reaction into a reasoned response. For example, taking long slow deep breaths can take energy away from the stress reaction and give it back to your reasoning brain. It takes concentration and practice, especially at first, but it works well. (You can use self hypnosis to build this into a habit, too.)
By changing our automatic stress reaction, we can learn to control the effects of stress, even though we may not have control over the stressors themselves. I can’t control rush-hour traffic, in other words, but I can control how I react to rush-hour traffic.
The physical reactions to stress are pretty standard: you breathe a little faster, maybe start to sweat, your heart pounds. And the fallout, physically, is damaging to your health. Or is it?
Turns out, stress kills . . . but only if you believe it does. In a Harvard study, participants were taught to reframe their stress reaction: the heart rate speeding up, the faster breathing, were just preparing them for activity, for action, for whatever challenge they face. The participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful preparation were less anxious and more confident.
Not only were they more comfortable, there was a significant difference in their physiological response. In the typical stress response, your blood vessels constrict as your heart rate goes up—one reason stress is associated with cardiovascular disease. But in participants who viewed their stress response as helpful, the blood vessels stayed relaxed, a much healthier physical state.
It looks like the most damaging aspect of stress may be our negative perception of it.
Here’s a video of Dr. Kelly McGonigal talking about this phenomenon in a TED talk. She’s the author of The Willpower Instinct, a very fun read that is also a great resource for anyone who wants to make a change for the better.