Check out Kelly McGonigal’s ideas about stress. Her research has led to the paradoxical notion that stress is a positive force in our lives, provided we change our beliefs about it.

McGonigal began to rethink stress after reading the results of a study that tracked 30,000 U.S. adults over eight years. The study showed a 43% increased chance of dying for the participants who experienced high levels of stress, but this was only true for those who also believed stress to be harmful. The individuals who did not believe stress was harmful had the lowest risk of dying in the study. What gives?

The stress response primes the body for action and one of the ways it does this is through the release of oxytocin, a stress hormone sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone.” In addition to adrenaline and cortisol, oxytocin is released during stress as a physiological impetus to seek contact and support. As she notes in her TED Talk, “when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support…. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.”

Further studies have shown that when we believe stress to be a positive force in our lives, the negative impacts of stress are reduced; specifically, blood vessels do not constrict. Over time, this could reduce the risk of heart disease or a heart attack. In addition, oxytocin acts an anti-inflammatory and has properties that heal heart tissue damaged by stress.

McGonigal’s focus on secure attachment is important to me in my clinical work, as is her interest in creating meaning in our lives. In fact, she encourages us to “chase meaning.” Focusing on what matters most to us leads to opportunities to experience stress as a positive force. It also increases our chance to make contact with people who matter to us.  

McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, is on my list of must-reads for 2016!

Here is a link to her TED talk: