Cambrian: Opinion

How you approach stress can make a big difference in your health

Dianne Brooke
Dianne Brooke

Stress. I can only dream of what it would be like to have life without it.

Truthfully, I’m way luckier than so many others that I know. But it does seem to hurt, to drag me down when I suffer under it. I spend much time belaboring to my clients how much stress is bad for their health as well. I see it harbored in their bodies all the time. Then I listened to an interesting presentation (

“How to Make Stress Your Friend.” Intriguing, right? In it, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal “confessed” she’d been preaching to people for years to avoid stress, that stress kills you, that it is your enemy. She began reading new (at that time) research to the contrary. The studies showed that it isn’t the stress that kills you rather the belief that stress is harmful that does!

She said if your heart starts racing, you start breathing harder and perhaps perspire, it is your body preparing you for action, that you can do whatever it is that needs to be done. The harmful part of stress is the constriction of blood vessels, which leads to cardiovascular damage. However, if one believes the reactions to stress are preparation for a challenge, blood vessels do not constrict!

Another fascinating facet to stress; it makes you more social. Some of you may be familiar with “the cuddle hormone,” oxytocin, a neural hormone that helps you strengthen social bonds, that primes you for social contact and is actually a natural anti-inflammatory. All that warm fuzzy. It is a STRESS hormone!

It helps heart cells heal from stress-induced damage, strengthening the heart. The benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and support. We are naturally drawn to share our suffering. If you reach out for help or seek others to help them, it increases this hormone and helps you recover more quickly!

Furthering her perspective, McGonigal mentioned a study by UCLA on friendship among women.

Now researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight.

Dr. Laura Cousin Klein, who conducted the study, says it seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight-or-flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect.

Equally fascinating to me was another study of 1,000 subjects between the ages of 34 and 93. They were asked how much stress in the last year they had experienced and also how much time they spend helping others.

For respondents, every major stressful life experience increased their risk of death by 30 percent. However, those who spent time caring for others had no increase in risk of death due to stress.

So, HOW you think about stress is what is going to make or break you. How you think and act affects us more that the stressful event. Reaching out to others in time of need, reaching out beyond yourself to help others “creates a biology of courage and helping others increases resiliency,” said McGonigal.

Are you reaching out to help others who may be going through what you are? Are you accepting contact? We are not alone.

Take notice the next time your heart speeds up or your brow starts to glisten. You are simply getting ready to spring into action. Be grateful!

Dianne Brooke’s column appears weekly and is special to The Cambrian. Visit her website at Email her at

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