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  • Writer's pictureJohn Seivert

Is Stress Good for You?

Stress is a regular part of everyone’s life. It can be stress from work, family, financial, health or any number of things, but we worry about a lot of things on a daily basis. Stress has been singled out as a primary cause of many illnesses including chronic pain conditions. As a physical therapist I help patients deal with these chronic pain problems regularly. I love this work because it allows me to help people manage their own aches and pains and most importantly, allow people to see that the many stresses we have in our lives can actually be a good thing.

Kelly McGonigal, a clinical psychologist at Stanford University has helped us see the positive side effects of stress, but there’s a catch. First, let me tell you about a pivotal study that rocked her world as a healthcare provider and has changed the way I work with my patients as well.

A study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years, and they asked them two questions.

1. How much stress have you experienced in the last year?

2. Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?

The researchers then used public death records to find out who died. The results showed the following: People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people that believe stress is harmful for your health. The other group of people who experienced a lot of stress but did not believe that stress was harmful were no more likely to die. Get this, this group had the lowest risk of dying than anyone in the study including the people who had relatively little stress.

The researchers estimated that over the eight years they were tracking deaths, 182,000 Americans died prematurely, not from stress, but from the belief that stress is bad for you. That would be 20,000 deaths a year caused by believing stress is bad for you and would rank as the 15th largest cause of death in the United States last year, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide. Whoa Nellie. That is some pretty astounding stats to swallow and I think we need to understand that our belief is more powerful than imaginable.

But we need to understand what happens to our bodies when we are stressed. Stressful situations cause our heart and respiration rates to increase, sweating occurs, concentration is difficult and blood vessels constrict. However, when we are trained that stress responses like these happen for a good reason our body reacts differently. One of the biggest changes is in our blood vessels. They actually dilate which allows for a healthy stress response. I like to think of stresses in our life like mini workouts. Our body goes through some intense changes similar to a sprint and then it relaxes.

There are countless examples of patients I have seen over the years that believe there back problems are going to keep them from working, doing household chores and exercising to stay fit and healthy. They believe their MRI results showed them that they are damaged goods and they really should be careful and not do too much because they could make their already bad back worse. This belief system couldn’t be farther from the truth and after several visits of helping them change their belief system and understanding that their back is actually quite strong and with graded exposures to doing the things they want to do they were able to get back to a full life of activities with minimal pain.

The belief that the “stress” of bending, lifting and working in the yard for an extended period of time was harmful to the back is no different than believing that the occasional lifestyle stresses are going to cause you harm.

Our bodies thrive on intermittent stresses. A hard day in the garden, a long bike ride, or a hike that causes some back ache and sore muscles is healthy. We need to follow that up with some well needed stretching and a different activity the next day and most importantly the belief that yesterday’s activities are going to make me stronger and more resilient.

“Motion is lotion” is a common phrase I use with my patients on a daily basis. Our bodies are made to move and when we move, we are alive. We feel better, function better and experience our world with joy.

The catch to the research is this: If you believe that stress is not harmful to you and is actually good for you, you will live a longer and healthier life.

Get out there and move, if you have an injury be cautious, but keep moving and most importantly believe that moving is good for you. There is plenty of research to support a positive attitude towards the things you are doing can help you. The next time you come across a stressful situation think about the positive things that are happening in your body to deal with that situation and then when you resolve the issue you will be stronger for it.

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