Most of the people who come to see me are dealing with both a physical symptom, and some area of their lives that is causing them stress. It’s a fairly intuitive idea that stress is “bad” for us, and possibly even shortens our lives, but after years of sharing that perspective, health psychologist Kelly McGonical wants you to know how to make stress your friend. Research does show that having incidents of stress can negatively impact your health and lifespan, but, and here’s the catch, only if you believe that stress is bad for you. If you believe, instead, that stress is priming your body to be able to handle the challenging situation you’re facing, then stress is not bad for you. Furthermore, if you use the awareness that stress is priming you to be able to handle stress well, and reach out to others for contact and support, then you thrive under stress.
If you love TED Talks as much as I do, you’ll really enjoy listening to the entire talk here, or here with subtitles, but the part that I most want to share with you is McGonical’s words about the “love hormone” and its effect on your health
“I want to tell you about one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the stress response, and the idea is this: stress makes you social. To understand this side of stress, we need to talk about a hormone, oxytocin, and I know oxytocin has already gotten as much hype as a hormone can get. It even has its own cute nickname, the “cuddle hormone,” because it’s released when you hug someone. But this is a very small part of what oxytocin is involved in. Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone. It fine-tunes your brain’s social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthen close relationships. Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact with your friends and family. It enhances your empathy. It even makes you more willing to help and support the people you care about.
“But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.
“Okay, so how is knowing this side of stress going to make you healthier? Well, oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain, it also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart. And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone. Your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”
What I most appreciate about learning this new perspective is that not only can stress be my friend, but that the human contact part of my day, caring for all my patients, is really good for me. And I feel good about the fact that when you come in for a visit, the physical aspects of what I do support your health, but also the simple act of me asking how you’re doing and listening provides a benefit to your health. Not to mention the benefit of physical contact.