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How do you see stress: Bodily Armageddon or preparation for a hero?

By Danette Vernon

We all know that stress causes cancer, heart attacks, allergies, and a lowered immune system. For some of us, even the fear of what might happen if we don’t lower our stress — can be very stressful.

People have tried many ways to lower the stress in their lives, sometimes even going to extremes. A few years ago Subway posted stories of people who changed their lives. They gave up the corporate ladder for the opportunity to teach skiing in Colorado or run the chuck wagon on fake trail rides in Missouri. Not all of us believe we can afford quite that level of change to avoid the stress of living in this world, so we may visit a healer, learn to meditate, or simply go on vacation. We feel, and at times rightly so, it’s either that or invest in having a hex put on someone — our evil ex, an overly smug co-worker, or the neighbor with the barking dog.

It’s all doable in the Lowcountry, but none of its necessary. We don’t have to go anywhere or spend any money or think “positively” positive thoughts. We just have to change our mind.

New research shows that stress is not a killer. It’s whether you believe stress to be your downfall or your helpmate.

Kelly McGonogal, a professor in both business and medicine at Stanford University, reports on a research project that followed 30,000 adults for eight years. They were asked two primary questions: One, what is your level of stress? Two, do you believe your stress to be helpful or harmful to your health?

Eight years later, death records were reviewed. People who self-reported a lot of stress and who viewed stress as harmful to their health were 43% more likely to have died. The study found that people who self-reported a lot of stress but viewed their stress as helpful, were no more likely to have died in those eight years than people who originally reported low stress.

Kelly reviews the signs of stress for us, and how can we re-think or “change our mind” about what each signal means, for example, a pounding heart? “Preparation for action,” Kelly declares. Heavy breathing? More oxygen and therefore more energy to the brain!

Kelly tells us to think of the signs of stress as, “my body helping me rise to the challenge.” Your body is preparing you to be brave and if you believe that, your body will as well.

Nice in theory, but just how is this belief enacted in the body? For one, if you take in this new image of stress as gospel, then the blood vessels to the heart that might ordinarily constrict considerably with the exertion of emotional or mental stress — don’t. They merely narrow slightly, which is, as Kelly noted, the same as when you experience joy.

Changing your mind could prepare your body to experience the everyday stress you encounter in life as preparation for heroic acts, or at least as the physical equivalent of joy.

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