Stress is not harmful?
We've been told that stress is harmful to our health, that it increases our pain levels but what if that was a misconception? What if there was a way of making stress work for us rather than against us. It's all about perception. Stress is only harmful to us when we believe it is.
Research being conducted by health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal has been changing opinions on how harmful stress really is and has made me completely reevaluate how I interpret the stress I have in my life while living with the challenges of chronic pain.
Those living with chronic pain or any health condition that has the potential to become debilitating includes a unique set of stressors. Dealing with doctors who have limited knowledge on our condition and how to effectively treat it. Dealing with family and friends who don't understand what is going on with us and how drastically our health conditions change our daily lives. Trying to deal with insurance companies and disability claims. And trying to deal with the financial pressures of supporting our family but also taking care of our own health needs. These can become overwhelming and push us deeper into depression, anxiety and increase our overall pain.
Changing your physical response
But what if by changing our beliefs about stress we could actually change our bodies physical response to it? McGonigal cites a study conducted in 2012 by the University of Wisconsin which tracked 30,000 people in the United States for 8 years. They were asked how much stress they have experienced within the last year and whether they believed that stress was harmful for their health. The university then used public death records to find out how many of these individuals had died over the 8 year span of the study. What they discovered was that those who had a large amount of stress in their lives had a 43% increased risk of death; however, that was only true for those who also believed that stress was harmful to their health. The study participants who had a large amount of stress in their lives but did not believe it was harmful had a lower percentage of death risk than even those who had very little stress in their lives. That would make the 'belief' that stress is harmful the 15th largest contributor to death in the U.S. in 2012. Not stress itself, just the belief that is was harmful. Killing more than skin cancer, HIV, AIDS and homicide.
Another study at Harvard University put 2 groups of students through a social stress test. One group being taught how to see their physical stress responses as beneficial to their health while the other group was given no information for dealing with stress. This was done in order to evaluate the constriction of their blood vessels during stress which has the potential of leading to cardio vascular disease. They found that those who were taught to rethink their beliefs on their physical stress response had no change in their blood vessel constriction and therefore no increased risk of cardio vascular disease. In fact, their physical response was identical to that of those who experience joy or perform acts of courage.
Stress hormone's help us
McGonigal states that these results have to do with the hormone oxytocin, also referred to as the cuddle hormone. This hormone enhances our social instincts and encourages us to create closer relationships, to crave physical contact with friends and family, it enhances empathy and makes us want to reach out and support those we care about.
But this warm and fuzzy hormone is a stress hormone. It's released in our bodies during times of stress, extreme joy and extreme acts like those involving great courage. This hormone literally prepares our bodies to reach out to others and meet the challenges that are before us. It is an anti-inflammatory; helping our blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. In addition, it works with our heart receptors to heal any heart damage caused by stress.
For those of us dealing with chronic pain conditions, stress is seen as a major contributor to heightened pain levels. We're told to eliminate as much stress from our lives as we can, we're told all about the harmful affects of stress on our physical and emotional well-being. Stress cannot be completely eliminated, it just isn't possible. We can however, adjust our perception of it.
Stress is simply an unmet challenge that presents itself in our lives. It requires thought and creativity and assistance from those around us to meet and surmount these challenges successfully. We have an array of possibilities to reduce stress in our lives; yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, cognitive behavioral therapy but what if we could see stress differently, thus having a completely different physical reaction to it? What would that mean for chronic pain patients?
Rather than fearing stress, avoiding it, becoming overwhelmed by it and becoming more introverted in our suffering we should be experiencing the physical signs of stress as a positive sign. A sign to open up and reach out to others. A sign that our amazing bodies are preparing us to meet the challenge head on with strength and the extraordinary ability to heal ourselves.
Here are some suggestions for changing your perceptions on the physical responses our bodies have to stress:
When your heart races, know that your body is preparing you for action, allowing you to meet the challenge.
Breathing faster is allowing more oxygen into your system.
Sweating is regulating your body temperature, no different than when you exercise. Stay hydrated.
Racing thoughts are our sign that we need to reach out to others and ask for help whether from friends, family, your doctor or therapist.
By taking stress and retraining our perceptions to make it a benefit to our health rather than a risk factor we can not only reduce our health risks in the future but possibly eliminate one of the major contributors to increased pain and flare ups in our present. Our emotional wellness will be enhanced which benefits our immune system and our physical responses to everything happening in our lives. It gives us the strength and confidence to communicate our needs to those we include in our lives and care about. We could see significant decreases in our overall pain levels and our capacity to function on a daily basis. We would know that stress is not leading us into further anxiety and an inability to cope with our challenges but preparing us, energizing us to carry us through. This has the potential to give chronic pain patients their lives back.
Keller, Litzelman, Wisk, et al. 2012, University of Wisconsin, School of Medicine and Public Health
Jamieson, Mendes, Nock, 2011, Harvard University, Department of Psychology