Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
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.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.