“How you think about something can transform its effect on you.” – Kelly McGonigal PhD
When you think about stress, what do you think? Do you think, “I have too much of it and it is causing me to be sick and tired?” Or do you think, “Stress is the ability to adapt to change and I acknowledge it when I see it?” Which is the right answer? The answer is that both are true, if that is what you believe.
In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal PhD writes, “The effect you expect is the effect you get.” She shares two studies that demonstrate that your mind-set is what matters in how your body responds to something. One study demonstrated that drinking a milkshake that was marked as “indulgent” had a steeper ghrelin (the hormone that indicates satiety) response, indicating fullness. The same milkshake marked as “sensible” had a lower ghrelin response indicating you were still hungry. How the milkshake was marked determined what you expected and corresponded with a physiological response. 1
Another study by the same investigator showed that women hotel attendants who were educated that their job met all the requirements for an active lifestyle by the Surgeon General lost weight, lowered blood pressure, decreased body mass index as compared to the other women hotel attendants who did the same work but were not educated about the healthy benefits of their work. 2 The only difference was the mind-set intervention.
I am a recent convert from the mind-set of “all stress is harmful” camp. As a traditionally trained physical therapist, it is all that I heard. I fueled the fire too and told all my patients they needed to reduce the stress in their life so they could recover better. Wouldn’t they try to avoid stress it if they knew stress was bad for them? I know I personally tried in my own life to avoid all stress. Until, one day I accepted stress as a part of life and in fact realized that stress could actually be beneficial.
Let me share a personal story to help bring this message home. Over the past few years I have been on a personal journey to health. As it has evolved, I have worked on different components of health along the way. Specifically, I have worked on eating well, moving well, sleeping well and thriving (connection and purpose). Four simple principles; they aren’t easy, but they are simple to remember.
I didn’t know where to put stress in the equation. I hadn’t mastered it yet, so I simply left it out. I was working with a health guide at the time, and she said I needed to meditate to manage my stress. See, I have 3 kids, a husband who works a busy orthopedic surgery private practice with trauma call, and I run a small physical therapy practice. Stressful. A lot like your life I have no doubt. So I worked on meditating my stress away, because short of quitting my physical therapy job that I love or giving the kids up for adoption, I couldn’t decrease the stress. All I could do was eat chocolate.
Frustrated, I simply cried. No matter how much I meditated, stress always came back. And I realized that parenting 3 young kids is what stressed me out the most. Yet being a parent was the job I cherished the most. Now what? There was nothing to do! Until I accepted stress and realized that stress was not only a fact of life, but was necessary. And in many cases, it actually was related to healthy living. My mindset about stress changed.
Here are my top 5 reasons stress is good for you. Hear me out.
1.Stress is associated with eating healthy food.
Plants have evolved toxins to prevent animals from eating the plant. These toxins stimulate the nervous system via the taste buds of the predator to indicate a potential toxin; a stress response. However, humans have evolved a tolerance to these toxins that allows us to eat the bitter tasting fruits and vegetables that actually activates signaling pathways to protect against disease. Think the bitterness of a raspberry to deter an organism to eat it, yet is packed with anti-oxidants which are anti-aging nutritional components.
2.Stress helps build bones and muscles to optimize movement.
A healthy exercise program includes resistance training in order to stimulate the myoblasts (cells that synthesize muscle) to gain strength and osteoblasts (cells that synthesize bone) to strengthen the bones.
3.Stress allows your body to repair while you sleep.
Although in sleep your consciousness is turned off, your body is in a continued state of repair, remodeling and cleaning up. Restorative sleep requires that your body is continually stressed.
4.Stress allows you to adapt in order to connect to people or find your purpose (Thrive)
Thriving for my fourth principle is defined as purpose and connection. Think of the people you know who are truly living their purpose in life. Did they just happen to fall into it or did it take some stress to get there? To find your purpose in life requires mental strain, trial and error, give and take, or pressure. Connecting to people is not always easy and as many health care providers know, connecting to every patient can be challenging and often stressful. Yet the stress produces the ability to adapt and change depending on the situation to find a way to connect.
5.Stress makes life more meaningful.
On a daily basis we are stressed. Some of the most beautiful moments I have had as a parent include tremendous stress. For example, when my son found his dear cat in our front yard, he cried terrible tears of sadness. I didn’t know what to do, but we were going to be late for school. I knelt down and simply hugged him. We acknowledged and honored his sadness. Yes, it was stressful, but he was brave. I didn’t try to make the stress of this moment go away, we didn’t drown his sorrow in sweets, we didn’t meditate, we simply connected. Because acknowledging stress actually brings people together and controlling or demonizing stress tears people apart.
We give every day stress too much credit. It isn’t killing us, but maybe it is actually helping us live, learn, connect, and thrive.
If we look at the original four principles I mention for health, and put them in a pie chart separated from stress, it looks like this:
What happens when we put these two charts together?
That is a RADIANT pie chart! It makes my point so well.
My husband reminded me the other day when he asked, “Do you know how to make a diamond? It takes two things.” Of course, I wasn’t sure at the time where he was going with this question as it relates to stress and health. And then I got it, “Coal and pressure….Oh! Stress!”
To make a diamond, you need coal and, yes, stress. It’s about time we change our mind-set, don’t you think?
Remove. Replace. Restore.
Remove fear of stress.
Replace with acknowledgement and honor stressful life events. Stress means you are alive. Reach out to a friend, family member or a licensed professional.
Restore connections to the people around you. Health. Strength. Learning.
Eat well. Move well. Sleep well. Thrive on…..with Stress
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on stress. I am not an expert on anything except living my own life and sharing those experiences with others for comedy, for learning, or simply for the simple purpose of connecting. This is also a chapter in my book "A Mother's KISS" albeit paired down.
1. Crum AJ, Corbin WR, Brownell KD, Salovey P. Mind over milkshakes: Mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychol. 2011;30(4):424-9; discussion 430-1.
2. Crum AJ, Langer EJ. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychol Sci. 2007;18(2):165-171.
Dr Carolyn Dolan DPT, Cert MDT, MSHN
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