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.
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.
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.
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.
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.