As a professional, when it comes to helping people deal with the type of straining pressure that can result from life's hardest times, Kelly McGonigal has experienced a change of heart over the past few years.
"My goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to get rid of your stress, I want to make you better at stress."
Her reason for the shift in focus is easy to explain. As part of her mission to help people be happier and healthier, she'd always been inclined to teach the dangers of stress. You know, the usual: stress is bad, stress can kill you, stress can increase your chances of falling ill to a range of sicknesses, etc.
That is-- until she came across a study that followed stressed individuals over an 8-year period. As part of that study, researchers found that an estimated 20,000 Americans died prematurely not from stress, but from the belief that stress was bad for them -- the estimation, by the way, would have the belief of stress as a great danger, ranking it as the 15th largest cause of death.
The implication is as clear as it is a much used cliché: perception is reality.
It's part of the reason she says she has a "decade of demonizing stress to redeem herself from" as she sets out to incorporate the study's findings.
"Here the science says 'yes.' When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress," McGonigal says.
It's true. When we have too much work to do, when a task seems impossible, when a test seems destined to get the best of us, our bodies will show it. We begin to breath faster, our hearts begin to pound, we might break out into a sweat or, worse, lose a few strands of hair.
That is all normal, McGonigal says, but what she tries to argue is that, from there, it is our response to these signs that determines how much of a debilitation stress can have on our ability to perform and continue our day in peace.
"Normally we interpret these physical changes as anxiety or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure. But what if you viewed them instead as signs that your body was energized, was preparing you to meet this challenge?" she said. "That pounding heart is preparing you for action. If you're breathing faster it's no problem, it's getting more oxygen to your brain."
Those encouraging words are the same messages that were fed to participants of a study conducted by Harvard University to test the effect that perception had on the reality of stress.
"Participants who learned to view the stress response as helpful for their performance, well they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident, but those most fascinating finding, to me, was how their physical stress response changed," McGonigal said.
High stress levels, McGonigal says, are usually associated with Cardiovascular disease because people's blood vessels typically constrict when their bodies respond to stress. Those who participated in the study, however, were shown to have relaxed blood vessels, which painted a much better picture for their hearts.
"It actually looks a lot like what happens in moments of joy, and courage," she says, before she emphasized just how big of a revelation this is for people who are looking to avoid the catastrophic issues that they believe stress causes.
"Over a lifetime of stressful experience, this one biological change could be the difference between a stress induced heart attack at age 50 and living well into your 90's. And this is really what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters."