Tonight I sobbed uncontrollably on the shoulders of a friend who had also lost her dad in 2016. As I wiped my lipstick from her bare shoulders we continued, talking about our dads was so cathartic and I couldn’t help but think of how 2016 seemed like such a hard year for so many of us. It was the year I lost my father, the year too many friends lost someone they loved or a job, their home. The year a couple friends fought for their lives. It was a year of shaking.
I knew there had to be a way to handle grief and stress that would be less destructive to my body so I researched stress in particular and any studies I could find on the best way to think about stress.
Even though I was actively searching what I found surprised me. It turns out that there are numerous studies that suggest that it’s not stress itself but how you perceive stress that determines your mortality risk. Interestingly, studies have shown that there is a correlation between stress and longevity as long as the person experiencing it doesn’t view the stress negatively.
One such study was done by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after they asked about 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year as well as how much they believed stress played a factor in their health; whether a little, a moderate amount or a lot. A tad morbid but over the following eight years public death records were used to record the passing of any subjects.
What they found was astounding – those that had reported having high levels of stress at the beginning of the study and who ALSO believed stress had a significantly negative impact on their health had an unbelievable 43% increased risk of death.
Yet those that experienced a lot of stress but didn’t see stress as having a negative effect on their health or wellbeing were even better off than those who said they experienced less stress and they were amongst the least likely to die of all the study’s participants. Now that just rocked every paradigm I had about stress flat on its back but there was more, it gets better:
There is a new drug that obliterates the negative effects of stress! Well, not really but it’s just as easy as taking a drug and with much better side effects- this magical silver bullet is nothing more than the simple and selfless act of ‘giving’. Yes, giving of oneself with compassion, giving possessions or one’s time and just helping others in general have all been shown in some studies to reduce the effects of stress.
In fact author Michael J. Poulin of the University of Buffalo interviewed almost 850 people, ages 34-93 and they were all asked to report any stressful events from the past year as well as how much they had assisted other people during that time frame. Deaths that occurred within the group in the next five years were tracked, again using obituaries and public death records and what they found was remarkable:
Major stress events increased an individual’s risk of death by 30% but this increase completely disappeared for those who reported high rates of helping others, even if they had a stressful year. This suggests that giving to anyone significantly reduces one’s risk of death caused by stress.
Grief and stress are not the same but grief can cause significant stress so I’m thinking about the effects of both. What if instead of seeing the stress that grief caused in our bodies as some dark energy or spirit sneaking in to destroy our immune systems and bodies, it was instead seen as just Love, trapped and knocking around inside of you, pushing to reach the one you lost.
What if the stress we felt on an insane day at work or an overwhelming day at home was seen as just our bodies getting ready for either battle or making a quick retreat? What if we no longer spoke of stress as life shortening and grey hair inducing?
What would happen if we didn’t make stress the enemy of our bodies? The evidence suggests that in this case believing that stress will physically hurt you greatly increases the chance that it will.
Sometimes I talk about the things that negatively influence me in the hope
that dealing with it openly will help me be more aware and somehow be influenced less but this has changed my thinking.
Now I pretty much want new language for everything and I want to stop giving away power to things that I believed had influence over me. The truth is that ultimately we are each our own prime influencer and the most responsible, not our past experiences, stresses or losses.
Well now I’ve said a lot and I want you to still have time to do one last thing – you won’t regret watching this provocative video below by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who talks about these studies and how stress helps your body, how believing that stress harms you can actually kill you and how caring for others can literally save your life:
When making life choices and where stress is a concern remember…
“Chasing meaning is better for your life than avoiding discomfort.” – Kelly McGonigal
For Further Reading:
- Increased risk of coronary heart disease among individuals reporting adverse impact of stress on their health
- Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality
Go ahead leave a comment below and get the conversation started!
Petula is a busy mom of three, and the author of “How The Grumpy Pants Were Destroyed“. She is also incredibly concerned with encouraging healthy and happy purpose driven lifestyles.