Could This Simple Change of Perspective Make You Live Longer?
Taking a moment to think about the way you perceive stress could literally be a matter of life and death.
How Is Stress Affecting Your Life Expectancy?
How many times have you heard that too much stress can be harmful to your mental, emotional, and physical health?
You're probably very familiar with the idea that if you live a life of constant stress, it's going to take a toll on your body and can even shorten your life expectancy.
Obviously, stress can never be completely avoided, but many people are under the impression that if it could be completely avoided, that would probably be a good thing.
While this is the way that many of us have been trained to think, research shows that this is just plain not the case.
In fact, it seems that it is the negative perception of stress rather than stress itself that is truly dangerous.
Were you ever taught that stress is bad for your health?
What Does the Research Say About Our Perception of Stress?
I recently watched an amazing TED talk that completely changed the way I look at stress.
I've struggled with anxiety from time to time, so I was already very aware that I wasn't handling stress in the most positive way, but the research presented in this TED talk was absolutely eye opening to me.
Here are a few highlights:
- In an eight year study of 30,000 adults in the U.S, it was found that those who experienced lots of stress and believed that stress had a negative effect on them increased their chance of dying within the next year by 43%.
- In the same study, those who experienced lots of stress, but didn't believe it was bad for them were less likely to die than those who only experienced a little stress, but had negative beliefs about stress.
- Statistically, the belief that stress is bad for you could be considered the 15th largest cause of death in the United States.
- Those who perceived the body's stress response as helpful to their performance, experienced stress the same way that most people experience joy and courage.
Wow! I don't know about you, but I found this information not only quite surprising, but also empowering!
Instead of being a victim to stress, I can change my perception of stress and take control of the effect stress is having on my body! That's so cool!
Are you ready to change the way you perceive stress? I know I am!
Check out this awesome TED talk about how to make stress your friend!
What Does Stress Look Like?
Most people experience plenty of stress in their lives, so it might seem silly to take time to define it, but I think it's important to make sure that we're all on the same page before we begin this perception changing journey.
So what is stress?
A quick Google search will tell you that stress is "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances."
Although stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain, it has some very concrete physical symptoms as well.
Here are a few stress responses that are common to the physical body:
- fast heart beat
- quick, shallow breathing
- light headedness
How Do You Perceive Your Body's Stress Response?
I can't speak for everyone, but I know that in the past when I've observed a natural stress response in my body, I've had a tendency to stress about the stress that I'm experiencing.
For example, as I mentioned before, I've struggled with anxiety from time to time, and the few times I've had full out panic attacks, they have been the result of my worrying about a physical response to stress.
This is how this has played out for me in the past.
Initially I noticed that I was experiencing abnormally shallow breathing, that my heart was racing, or that I was sweating when I normally wouldn't be.
I instantly started worrying about the stress response and thought there was something horribly wrong with me.
Pretty soon, I was so stressed out about my stress response that I was in a complete panic and on the verge of passing out.
This is a fairly extreme example of how a negative perception of the stress response can cause further problems. That being said, even less extreme examples can have negative effects on a person's health.
In contrast, Dr. McGonigal suggests in her TED talk that people who perceive stress responses such as a racing heart as positive end up with a physical experience that is identical with the experience that a person experiences in moments of joy or courage.
Who wouldn't want to experience a stressful experience with genuine joy and courage?
(I strongly encourage you to watch the TED talk; Dr. McGonigal presents this topic so much better than I ever could.)
Picture your stress response as something that's going to propel you forward like the adrenaline a runner experiences right before a race.
How Do You Change Your Perception About Stress?
So, now that we know the benefits of changing our perception of stress, how do we go about doing this?
The key is to see your body's stress response as a good thing that is going to be helpful to your performance.
Here are some examples of how to do that:
- When you experience quick, shallow breathing or a racing heart, think of these symptoms as a way that your body is providing you with abundant life, strength, and energy. Picture how strong your heart and lungs are, and be grateful for their ability to circulate life giving air and blood throughout your body.
- If you experience slight light headedness, think of this as a sign of excitement rather than a sign of nervousness.
Nobody's saying that you can't sit down and relax through these stress responses if you need to.
I know, if I'm feeling light headed, I'm definitely going to sit down for a minute.
The key is to sit there and think about how the light headedness is a sign that my body is excited about something. That simple shift of perspective could have positive effects both short term and long term.
By the way, I'm not saying that anxiety or any other emotional disorder can always be remedied just by changing your perspective or even that this perspective change will be easy. I'm just saying that research shows a positive change in perspective does create concrete health benefits.
"One thing we know for certain is chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort."— Kelly McGonigal
Face Life With Courage and Confidence
I know there have been plenty of times in my life when I've opted for the path of least resistance, because I've been afraid of the stress that may result from a more challenging path.
Many people would tell you that choosing the path of least resistance is the best way to go.
Sometimes I think this has been a good decision for me, but I also know there have been times that I've missed out on rewarding activities and personal growth, because I was afraid I wouldn't be up to the challenge.
So, when it comes down to it, which way is healthier? Should we be avoiding stress or courageously and confidently facing it head on?
When asked whether it would be more beneficial to avoid stress altogether or face major stress with a positive perception, Dr. McGonigal said, "One thing we know for certain is chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort."
I don't know about you, but I'm excited to work on this perception change.
I'm excited to change the way I perceive challenges and courageously move towards opportunities that I would have shied away from in the past.
I challenge you to join me in this journey on the path towards improved quality of life and increased life expectancy one subtle perception shift at a time.