Stress Makes Us Sick, Right? Heart-and-Brain

That is what I have believed and taught for my entire career. But recently I came across a small study that suggests that our minds trump our physiology. Woooohooo!

Stress does not have to be harmful, especially for our hearts!  It turns out that how we perceive stress is more important than the actual stress.

Here’s what the study said: believing that stress is harmful makes it so.  If you don’t think it is, your risk of death is the same as for those who say they have little stress.

The study followed 30,000 Americans for over eight years.  They were periodically asked how much stress they were experiencing and whether they believed stress was harmful.  Using public records, the researchers tracked down the deaths in this group.  Those who believed their stress was harmful had a 43% increase in death over those who had stress but did not believe that it was harmful, which was the same rate of death as those who felt they had no stress.

What is remarkable is that this implies that over 20,000 people each year died not from stress but from the belief that their stress would kill them!   That would make it the 15th largest cause of death in the US, following, heart disease, cancer, accidents, etc.

The message is clear: changing how we think about stress can make a difference.

It can make us healthier if we perceive the stress response as trusting ourselves to rise to a challenge.  Such a belief is actually empowering.  What a concept!

There’s one other piece to this story. It concerns the the stress hormone, oxytocin, which is part of the stress response, just like adrenaline. It’s physiologic mission is to relax arteries and veins, help heart cells to regenerate from damage after heart attacks and strokes, and fight inflammation.

But it has another task as well: to trigger our bonding behaviors.  For example, it is released when we hug and is the neurohormone that encourages us to act to strengthen close relationships.

Why is this important?  Because humans are social animals and close relationships can make all the difference in our heart health.  Another study, involving 1,000 US citizens, ages 34 to 93, assessed how much time they spent helping others.  Those who had similar stress levels from family difficulties and financial stress had different rates of death during the eight year study.  The ones who actively helped others had the same low death rate as those who reported no stress. Those who had stress but were not involved in actively giving or receiving help, had a 30% higher death rate.  So, even asking for help can improve our health!

Dr. Dean Ornish recognized the importance of social support on cardiac health in his ground breaking work on reversing heart disease, 35 years ago.  His book, Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease,   laid out a plan that included a very low fat diet, regular exercise, daily meditation and a weekly support group.  This last component was quite a revolutionary at the time, but of course, he was right, and now we have a better understanding of how critical social support is to heart health.

Choosing to see stress as a way to increase our ability to face challenges can actually change the biology of our stress response.  Can we reframe stress as a reminder that we can trust ourselves to handle life’s challenges?  According to these studies, the answer is YES!  And all the better if we don’t face them alone.

Our gift to you this month is a recipe for a Stress Sack that you can make and give to friends and family, as a reminder about how they can better face life’s challenges