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Beneficial Stress? Is that possible?

Beneficial Stress observed in a study

In the beginning of this talk, Kelly cites a study that showed that people experiencing high stress had a 43% higher chance of dying the following year. That pretty much verifies that stress is bad for you, but the key to this study is that they found this to be only true if the people with the stress also believed that stress is harmful to them. If they believed that stress was not harmful, then they did not have an increased risk of dying, in fact, they even had lower risk than unstressed people. So it’s easy to come to the conclusion that stress is not bad after all, and all that matters is our view of it. I think this is potentially very dangerous and misleading.

The first thing we have to be careful of here is that they talk about “high stress” without any differentiation of the types of high stress. Is it acute or chronic, emotional, external, related to over-exercise? There’s a vast array of types of stress and I believe that all of these can have different interactions and effects on the body and the mind.

The power of positive thinking over stress

Another way of viewing the results of this study is as an example of the amazing power of positive thinking. The results show that, even though the subject is experiencing high stress, a positive mindset can negate the potentially lethal effects of that stress. Viewing it in this way, we see that stress is always bad, but positive thinking can be so powerful that it can be overcome.

During Kelly’s presentation she talks about people reaction during the “social stress test”. Sure, that’s ok, but it’s not an example of chronic stress. If you have a particular challenge that needs your highest performance, that’s when the bodies natural stress response can be very useful. This is natural and normal. The bad examples of stress are unnatural and dangerous.

But, what Kelly does uncover is that our society has demonized stress recently. Causing us to think badly about ourselves when we start to have a stress reaction, even when it’s a natural and normal stress reaction. So now we have negative thoughts flooding into our bodies along with the stress response. That’s the dangerous cocktail. Negative thoughts are ALWAYS bad. Positive and negative thoughts are two extremes of the same power that we have, at one end so powerful and life giving and, at the other, so destructive and deadly.

Oxytocin and stress?

Linking oxytocin to stress responses and socialising doesn’t sound completely right to me. I’m going to need to investigate that more to see if there’s anything to it. She notes all of the benefits of oxytocin that can counteract the negative effects of stress, but surely it’s better to get oxytoxic flooding your system without the stress. Wouldn’t that be better? What Kelly is implying is that stress (and the associated oxytocin) can make your body healthier. I think that’s dangerous.

Caring is good

Final study of 1000 Americans again asking how must stress have they had in the last year, but this time they also asked how much social interaction they have had in the last year. Major crisis events (financial, family) increased risk of dying by 30% except if the people spent time caring for others, in which case they showed no increased risk of dying. I take away from this that caring for people is a good thing and it even has a good effect on your mind and your body. I really don’t see linking the act of caring to it’s ability to help us cope with stress, as being very useful. Caring is good for us, end of story.

Beneficial Stress? Kelly McGonigal during her TEDGlobal talk in June 2013Beneficial Stress?

Is there such a thing as beneficial stress? Well, yes, if there is something happening that requires increased performance (like avoiding an impending danger) then the bodies natural stress response is right there to do it’s thing. This should only be short term and should never be chronic. Some of the most dangerous forms of stress we deal with these days are created by our unnatural environments and by the unnatural thoughts we construct. Just simple thoughts can trigger the stress response, and these can easily become a chronic issue.

It’s better to have all of the benefits of positive thinking, oxytocin and being caring, without having any unnecessary stress at all. That has to be much better than trying to manage some stress we think we can’t avoid.

Great quote

Right near the end of the video, Kelly made this quote in response to a question – “chasing meaning is better for your health than avoiding discomfort“. That’s a wonderful quote and it links in so well with the sentiments behind the movie Finding Joe, “Follow your Bliss”.


I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have time to leave a comment.

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