Recent research suggests that stress has some positive benefits. This should not be a surprise if you realize that a big part of being human is having a nervous system that allows us to use and manage our stress. After all, would we even be able to exist without a “flight or fight” reaction? Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist who translates academic research into practical strategies for health, is looking at the “upside of stress.” Her example, however, of how stress benefits daredevils like aerialist Nik Wallenda and Evel Knievel, may go a bit too far in the opposite direction.
In his career, Evel attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980. He suffered more than 433 bone fractures his career. Knievel died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida, aged 69. I am not sure that adrenalin junkies are good examples of perceiving stress positively. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the inverted U relationship between anxiety and performance where too little and too much anxiety interferes with performance but some anxiety (or in this case – stress) can be helpful.
McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. McGonigal reviewed several studies that suggested stress may actually be correlated with longevity – if a person does not view it as a negative. Researchers at the U. of Wisconsin in Madison asked 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year and to rate how much (a little, moderate amount, or a lot) they believed this stress influenced their health. Public death records were reviewed for the next 8 years to see how many of the subjects died. People who reported high levels of stress and who believed stress had a lot of impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.
Another study looked at the perception that stress affects health and its relation to mortality. 33.7% of nearly 186 million Americans believe that stress affects their health a lot. Those people who reported a lot of stress and a belief in the high impact of stress on their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death according to Keller et al (Health Psychol. 2012 Sept; 31(5):677-84).
Next month, we will look at other studies that suggest it is better to view stress as “mostly harmless” like the entry for Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide.
by Susan Andrews, PhD
The Psychology Times, August 2015
Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).