#158 Why Believing Stress is Bad May Shorten Your Life

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Why Believing Stress is Bad May Shorten Your Life

Believing stress is bad may be dangerous to your health.  In fact, believing stress is bad could be considered the thirteenth leading cause of death in the U.S. according to recent research.  Read on to learn how to make stress work for you and extend your life.

I Was Also Convinced Stress Was Bad

Growing up, I thrived on stress.  Later, stress allowed my mind laser-like focus when pouring through medical charts or performing operations.  It even allowed me to stay up all night caring for sick patients without the slightest fatigue.

But that all changed a few years ago.  About the same time my poor diet led to a health crisis, I started examining all aspects of my life.

As part of this evaluation, I read many articles on stress. And, the more I read, the more I began believing stress is bad.

I was so convinced that stress was bad I started looking for ways to eliminate it from my life. Interestingly, the more I tried to avoid stress, the more stressed I became.

Long days in the hospital were no longer effortless for me.  To help battle stress, I even wrote articles like this, “Eliminate Stress in Seven Steps” (blog #14).

However, one study forever changed my life.  I now approach stress in a mindful and positive way.

Stress is not evil nor is it something that should be avoided. Rather, to grow and contribute in this life you have to embrace stress.

Stress once again gives me energy, clarity, and the strength to take on meaningful challenges.  Stress can do the same for you.

The Study That Changed Me

In this provacative study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin asked a fascinating question–is stress bad or is it the perception that stress is bad that cause health problems and an early death.

To answer this question, these researchers dug through survey forms from the 28,753 people who participated in the 1998 National Health Interview Survey.  As part of this survey, people were asked three questions.  Are you under a lot of stress?  Do you believe stress is harming you?  And, are you doing anything to reduce stress?

Researchers then compared the answers to how people rated their health and who was still alive eight years later.

Stress May Shorten or Extend Your Life

As you might have guessed, more than half of the people filling out this survey reported moderate or high levels of stress.  Also, as expected, those reporting high levels of stress were much more likely to suffer health problems and die early.

Fortunately, these University of Wisconsin researchers didn’t stop here.  And this is where things get really interesting.

For those people who reported high stress and also believed stress was hurting them were 43% more likely to die over the eight years of the study.

In contrast, those who reported high stress and also believed that stress was not harming them were 17% more likely to be alive.

Basically, this study showed that believing stress is bad was associated with health problems and an early death.  Based on these findings, these researchers estimated that 20,231 Americans needlessly die each year from believing that stress is bad. This would make believing stress is bad the thirteenth leading cause of death in the U.S.

How do you explain the findings?

How can stress be a good thing?  Fortunately, your body came pre-programmed with a stress response for a reason.  That stress response helped your ancestors fight off predators.   That same stress response can help you with a work or relationship challenge.  It can even help you stay up late helping your child study for a test and still function great the next day.

Exercise is Stress to the Body

A great example of how stress is good for you is exercise.  Exercise stresses the body.  For example, when you lift weights you are literally tearing small muscle fibers.  As the body repairs these small tears, the muscle gets stronger.

In contrast, if you did everything possible to avoid the stress of exercise, it wouldn’t be long before your muscles would weaken and health problems would develop.

What You Believe Becomes Your Reality

Perhaps it is the nocebo/placebo effect that explains the findings of this study.  For example, before a new medication is ever FDA approved, it must be compared to a “dummy pill.”  In these studies, people have no idea if they are taking the real pill or the dummy pill.

You would think that the “dummy pill” would have no effect.  However, quite the opposite is true.

Remarkably, 30% of people get better by taking the dummy pill.  This is the placebo effect.  And, any new medication has to help more than a dummy pill.

In contrast, about 10% of people in studies get deathly ill from the same dummy pill.  This is the nocebo effect.

It is possible that stress works the same way.  Whatever your beliefs are on stress, this then become your reality.

Five Reasons to Embrace Stress

1. More Strength and Energy

Have you ever wondered how people have been reported to lift cars or tractors off of dying loved ones?  While most people don’t need superhuman strength, studies show that viewing stress as a positive thing is associated with more energy during the day.

2. Enhanced Brain Function

Did you ever notice how much better you were able to study the night before a test?  This was the stress response in action.  Medical studies have linked stress to improved brain function.

3. Feel Happier

Studies show that avoiding stress isn’t associated with being happy.  Actually, depression is much more common in people trying to avoid stress.

4. A More Meaningful Life

Life challenges create deeper meaning.  Indeed, studies show that successfully passing through adversity is associated with a more meaningful and happy life.

5. Closer Relationships

When you are stressed, oxytocin hormone levels increase.  Oxytocin is what I like to call the “bonding hormone.”

When oxytocin levels are high, your body is programmed to seek the company of others.  And, as you strengthen these relationships, studies show that even more oxytocin is released.  Surging oxytocin levels can then block the potentially detrimental effects of stress.

Take Home Message

The key take away from the study, is that believing stress is bad may put you at risk for health challenges and an early death.  While no one study is ever definitive, other research has shown that eustress, or positive stress, is a good thing and should be embraced.

My challenge to you is to do the same thing I am now doing.  Every time I am feeling “stressed out,” I now say to myself “embrace the stress” or “stress is making me stronger.”

Have you also learned to mindfully embrace stress?  If so, please leave your experiences below so that others may benefit.  Also, feel free to ask any questions.  I read and respond to every question.

Special thanks to Dr. Kelly McGonigal whose writings introduced me to some of the research discussed in this article.  For a great read, please check out her book, The Upside of Stress.

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16 Comments
  1. This resonates well with something I picked up a couple years back: Stress isn’t bad – Anxiety about the stress is bad.

    • Hi Richard,

      A very interesting observation. I’m sure it’s not all in the mind but the mind is far more powerful than we really understand…

      Thanks for reading!

      John

  2. This is great to know. I have always been a stressful person and I have always thrived on it. But my family thinks stress will cut short my life.
    Thanks, I am sharing the articles with them

  3. I went a bit into an anxiety mode as my husband was hosp for depression…not eating. He is home and eating but still in bed. I find going outside and twenty min on bicycle helps..therapy..and a small amount of xanax helps. also found a homeopathic remedy for grief and related issues.
    Laura

    • Hi Laura,

      So sorry to hear your husband is suffering so much from depression. Glad to hear you are being proactive about your own health.

      Thanks for reading!

      John

  4. Even meditating is “stressful” – it takes a lot of mental energy to concentrate your thoughts and be mindful, and if you’re doing it right, it’s outside of your comfort zone.

    • Hi Jim,

      Great point. For some people, meditation can be stressful.

      In a way, meditation is like life. I know that whenever I meditate, my mind is often distracted and I spend most of my time trying to bring my mind back. Kind of like life–there are so many distractions all around us and it can be challenging to focus on what is most important.

      Thanks for reading!

      John

  5. It is disappointing to see you use the word “caused” in a correlational study. “Basically, this study showed that believing stress is bad caused health problems and an early death”. The study only suggested that there could be a connection. Further study would be required to establish a causal relationship. The media makes this error all the time- it’s one of my pet peeves about science reporting. Nevertheless, I think this is a great explanation of the power of belief and the significance of the placebo effect.

    • Great catch! I read these articles so many times before posting that sometimes you become blinded to errors until someone else points them out.

      You are absolutely correct. This study does not prove causation. It is just a powerful correlation study that challenges conventional wisdom.

      Best,

      John

  6. Indeed! You are correct; at least this is what I have always believed. The only person free of stress is a corpse.

  7. Great article with a very intriguing point of view! This corresponds to info I recently read in Dr. John Ratey’s wonderful book SPARK, which discusses how helpful exercise is for our brains (mood, thinking, problem solving, coherence) and how both physical and mental stress can and do make us stronger, too.

    I really like your idea of thinking in the midst of stress that this can be making me stronger, but I also value taking steps to deal with it and cope when that feels right–i.e. taking breaks, being good to myself, meditating, asking for help, expressing my feelings to someone, going to bed early, taking a bike ride, and so on. Hard to believe that trying to manage or cope with and ameliorate stress would always be bad if you view that as desirable rather than required. You can embrace it sometimes and/or try to manage it other times. Feeling that you have choice and power could be key.

    • Hi Jean,

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. This was just an observational study so no firm conclusions can be made.

      I loved this study because it is empowering and is also a paradigm shift from the conventional wisdom that stress is bad.

      You bring up a great point. I am particularly impressed with the quality of research behind meditation, time outside, exercise, prayer, etc. with the reduction of harmful stress (distress).

      Best,

      John