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TEDGlobal 2013

Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend

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Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.

- Health psychologist
Kelly McGonigal translates academic research into practical strategies for health, happiness and personal success. Full bio

I have a confession to make,
00:12
but first, I want you
00:16
to make a little confession to me.
00:19
In the past year, I want you to just raise your hand
00:23
if you've experienced relatively little stress.
00:26
Anyone?
00:29
How about a moderate amount of stress?
00:32
Who has experienced a lot of stress?
00:35
Yeah. Me too.
00:38
But that is not my confession.
00:40
My confession is this: I am a health psychologist,
00:43
and my mission is to help people be happier and healthier.
00:46
But I fear that something I've been teaching
00:51
for the last 10 years is doing more harm than good,
00:54
and it has to do with stress.
00:59
For years I've been telling people, stress makes you sick.
01:01
It increases the risk of everything from the common cold
01:04
to cardiovascular disease.
01:07
Basically, I've turned stress into the enemy.
01:09
But I have changed my mind about stress,
01:14
and today, I want to change yours.
01:17
Let me start with the study that made me rethink
01:21
my whole approach to stress.
01:23
This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States
01:25
for eight years, and they started by asking people,
01:29
"How much stress have you experienced in the last year?"
01:33
They also asked, "Do you believe
01:36
that stress is harmful for your health?"
01:40
And then they used public death records
01:44
to find out who died.
01:46
(Laughter)
01:48
Okay. Some bad news first.
01:49
People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year
01:53
had a 43 percent increased risk of dying.
01:56
But that was only true for the people
02:00
who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.
02:04
(Laughter)
02:08
People who experienced a lot of stress
02:10
but did not view stress as harmful
02:13
were no more likely to die.
02:15
In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying
02:16
of anyone in the study, including people
02:20
who had relatively little stress.
02:22
Now the researchers estimated that over the eight years
02:24
they were tracking deaths,
02:27
182,000 Americans died prematurely,
02:28
not from stress, but from the belief
02:32
that stress is bad for you. (Laughter)
02:34
That is over 20,000 deaths a year.
02:38
Now, if that estimate is correct,
02:41
that would make believing stress is bad for you
02:44
the 15th largest cause of death
02:46
in the United States last year,
02:49
killing more people than skin cancer,
02:51
HIV/AIDS and homicide.
02:52
(Laughter)
02:56
You can see why this study freaked me out.
02:59
Here I've been spending so much energy telling people
03:02
stress is bad for your health.
03:05
So this study got me wondering:
03:08
Can changing how you think about stress
03:10
make you healthier? And here the science says yes.
03:13
When you change your mind about stress,
03:16
you can change your body's response to stress.
03:18
Now to explain how this works,
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I want you all to pretend that you are participants
03:24
in a study designed to stress you out.
03:27
It's called the social stress test.
03:29
You come into the laboratory,
03:32
and you're told you have to give a five-minute
03:34
impromptu speech on your personal weaknesses
03:37
to a panel of expert evaluators sitting right in front of you,
03:41
and to make sure you feel the pressure,
03:44
there are bright lights and a camera in your face,
03:46
kind of like this.
03:49
And the evaluators have been trained
03:52
to give you discouraging, non-verbal feedback like this.
03:55
(Laughter)
04:05
Now that you're sufficiently demoralized,
04:08
time for part two: a math test.
04:11
And unbeknownst to you,
04:14
the experimenter has been trained to harass you during it.
04:16
Now we're going to all do this together.
04:20
It's going to be fun.
04:22
For me.
04:24
Okay. I want you all to count backwards
04:25
from 996 in increments of seven.
04:30
You're going to do this out loud
04:33
as fast as you can, starting with 996.
04:34
Go!
04:38
Audience: (Counting)
04:39
Go faster. Faster please.
04:41
You're going too slow.
04:43
Stop. Stop, stop, stop.
04:45
That guy made a mistake.
04:48
We are going to have to start all over again. (Laughter)
04:49
You're not very good at this, are you?
04:52
Okay, so you get the idea.
04:54
Now, if you were actually in this study,
04:56
you'd probably be a little stressed out.
04:58
Your heart might be pounding,
05:00
you might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat.
05:01
And normally, we interpret these physical changes
05:05
as anxiety
05:08
or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure.
05:09
But what if you viewed them instead
05:12
as signs that your body was energized,
05:14
was preparing you to meet this challenge?
05:17
Now that is exactly what participants were told
05:20
in a study conducted at Harvard University.
05:23
Before they went through the social stress test,
05:26
they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful.
05:29
That pounding heart is preparing you for action.
05:32
If you're breathing faster, it's no problem.
05:36
It's getting more oxygen to your brain.
05:38
And participants who learned to view the stress response
05:41
as helpful for their performance,
05:44
well, they were less stressed out,
05:46
less anxious, more confident,
05:48
but the most fascinating finding to me
05:50
was how their physical stress response changed.
05:52
Now, in a typical stress response,
05:55
your heart rate goes up,
05:57
and your blood vessels constrict like this.
05:59
And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress
06:03
is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease.
06:06
It's not really healthy to be in this state all the time.
06:09
But in the study, when participants viewed
06:13
their stress response as helpful,
06:15
their blood vessels stayed relaxed like this.
06:17
Their heart was still pounding,
06:21
but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile.
06:22
It actually looks a lot like what happens
06:25
in moments of joy and courage.
06:28
Over a lifetime of stressful experiences,
06:33
this one biological change
06:35
could be the difference
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between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50
06:40
and living well into your 90s.
06:43
And this is really what the new science of stress reveals,
06:46
that how you think about stress matters.
06:49
So my goal as a health psychologist has changed.
06:52
I no longer want to get rid of your stress.
06:56
I want to make you better at stress.
06:58
And we just did a little intervention.
07:01
If you raised your hand and said
07:03
you'd had a lot of stress in the last year,
07:05
we could have saved your life,
07:07
because hopefully the next time
07:09
your heart is pounding from stress,
07:10
you're going to remember this talk
07:12
and you're going to think to yourself,
07:14
this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.
07:16
And when you view stress in that way,
07:22
your body believes you,
07:24
and your stress response becomes healthier.
07:26
Now I said I have over a decade of demonizing stress
07:30
to redeem myself from,
07:34
so we are going to do one more intervention.
07:36
I want to tell you about one of the most
07:38
under-appreciated aspects of the stress response,
07:40
and the idea is this:
07:43
Stress makes you social.
07:46
To understand this side of stress,
07:49
we need to talk about a hormone, oxytocin,
07:50
and I know oxytocin has already gotten
07:53
as much hype as a hormone can get.
07:56
It even has its own cute nickname, the cuddle hormone,
07:58
because it's released when you hug someone.
08:02
But this is a very small part of what oxytocin is involved in.
08:04
Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone.
08:09
It fine-tunes your brain's social instincts.
08:11
It primes you to do things
08:15
that strengthen close relationships.
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Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact
08:21
with your friends and family.
08:24
It enhances your empathy.
08:26
It even makes you more willing to help and support
08:27
the people you care about.
08:30
Some people have even suggested
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we should snort oxytocin
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to become more compassionate and caring.
08:38
But here's what most people don't understand
08:43
about oxytocin.
08:45
It's a stress hormone.
08:48
Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out
08:51
as part of the stress response.
08:54
It's as much a part of your stress response
08:55
as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound.
08:58
And when oxytocin is released in the stress response,
09:02
it is motivating you to seek support.
09:04
Your biological stress response
09:08
is nudging you to tell someone how you feel
09:10
instead of bottling it up.
09:13
Your stress response wants to make sure you notice
09:16
when someone else in your life is struggling
09:19
so that you can support each other.
09:21
When life is difficult, your stress response wants you
09:24
to be surrounded by people who care about you.
09:28
Okay, so how is knowing this side of stress
09:33
going to make you healthier?
09:35
Well, oxytocin doesn't only act on your brain.
09:37
It also acts on your body,
09:40
and one of its main roles in your body
09:42
is to protect your cardiovascular system
09:44
from the effects of stress.
09:47
It's a natural anti-inflammatory.
09:49
It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress.
09:52
But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart.
09:55
Your heart has receptors for this hormone,
09:59
and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate
10:03
and heal from any stress-induced damage.
10:06
This stress hormone strengthens your heart,
10:10
and the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits
10:15
of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact
10:18
and social support,
10:22
so when you reach out to others under stress,
10:23
either to seek support or to help someone else,
10:26
you release more of this hormone,
10:30
your stress response becomes healthier,
10:32
and you actually recover faster from stress.
10:34
I find this amazing,
10:37
that your stress response has a built-in mechanism
10:39
for stress resilience,
10:43
and that mechanism is human connection.
10:46
I want to finish by telling you about one more study.
10:50
And listen up, because this study could also save a life.
10:54
This study tracked about 1,000 adults in the United States,
10:58
and they ranged in age from 34 to 93,
11:01
and they started the study by asking,
11:06
"How much stress have you experienced in the last year?"
11:08
They also asked, "How much time have you spent
11:12
helping out friends, neighbors,
11:16
people in your community?"
11:19
And then they used public records for the next five years
11:22
to find out who died.
11:24
Okay, so the bad news first:
11:27
For every major stressful life experience,
11:30
like financial difficulties or family crisis,
11:33
that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent.
11:36
But -- and I hope you are expecting a but by now --
11:40
but that wasn't true for everyone.
11:44
People who spent time caring for others
11:46
showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Zero.
11:50
Caring created resilience.
11:56
And so we see once again
12:00
that the harmful effects of stress on your health
12:01
are not inevitable.
12:04
How you think and how you act
12:06
can transform your experience of stress.
12:09
When you choose to view your stress response
12:12
as helpful,
12:15
you create the biology of courage.
12:17
And when you choose to connect with others under stress,
12:22
you can create resilience.
12:25
Now I wouldn't necessarily ask
12:29
for more stressful experiences in my life,
12:32
but this science has given me
12:35
a whole new appreciation for stress.
12:37
Stress gives us access to our hearts.
12:41
The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning
12:45
in connecting with others,
12:49
and yes, your pounding physical heart,
12:51
working so hard to give you strength and energy,
12:54
and when you choose to view stress in this way,
12:59
you're not just getting better at stress,
13:03
you're actually making a pretty profound statement.
13:05
You're saying that you can trust yourself
13:09
to handle life's challenges,
13:12
and you're remembering that
13:15
you don't have to face them alone.
13:18
Thank you.
13:21
(Applause)
13:22
Chris Anderson: This is kind of amazing, what you're telling us.
13:32
It seems amazing to me that a belief about stress
13:34
can make so much difference to someone's life expectancy.
13:39
How would that extend to advice,
13:43
like, if someone is making a lifestyle choice
13:45
between, say, a stressful job and a non-stressful job,
13:47
does it matter which way they go?
13:51
It's equally wise to go for the stressful job
13:54
so long as you believe that you can handle it, in some sense?
13:57
Kelly McGonigal: Yeah, and one thing we know for certain
14:00
is that chasing meaning is better for your health
14:01
than trying to avoid discomfort.
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And so I would say that's really the best way to make decisions,
14:06
is go after what it is that creates meaning in your life
14:09
and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.
14:11
CA: Thank you so much, Kelly. It's pretty cool.
KM: Thank you.
14:15
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Kelly McGonigal - Health psychologist
Kelly McGonigal translates academic research into practical strategies for health, happiness and personal success.

Why you should listen

Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal is a leader in the growing field of “science-help.” Through books, articles, courses and workshops, McGonigal works to help us understand and implement the latest scientific findings in psychology, neuroscience and medicine.

Straddling the worlds of research and practice, McGonigal holds positions in both the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the School of Medicine. Her most recent book, The Willpower Instinct, explores the latest research on motivation, temptation and procrastination, as well as what it takes to transform habits, persevere at challenges and make a successful change.

She is now researching a new book about the "upside of stress," which will look at both why stress is good for us, and what makes us good at stress. In her words: "The old understanding of stress as a unhelpful relic of our animal instincts is being replaced by the understanding that stress actually makes us socially smart -- it's what allows us to be fully human."

More profile about the speaker
Kelly McGonigal | Speaker | TED.com