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  • I have a confession to make,

  • but first, I want you

  • to make a little confession to me.

  • In the past year, I want you to just raise your hand

  • if you've experienced relatively little stress.

  • Anyone?

  • How about a moderate amount of stress?

  • Who has experienced a lot of stress?

  • Yeah. Me too.

  • But that is not my confession.

  • My confession is this: I am a health psychologist,

  • and my mission is to help people be happier and healthier.

  • But I fear that something I've been teaching

  • for the last 10 years is doing more harm than good,

  • and it has to do with stress.

  • For years I've been telling people, stress makes you sick.

  • It increases the risk of everything from the common cold

  • to cardiovascular disease.

  • Basically, I've turned stress into the enemy.

  • But I have changed my mind about stress,

  • and today, I want to change yours.

  • Let me start with the study that made me rethink

  • my whole approach to stress.

  • This study tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for eight years,

  • and they started by asking people,

  • "How much stress have you experienced in the last year?"

  • They also asked, "Do you believe

  • that stress is harmful for your health?"

  • And then they used public death records

  • to find out who died.

  • (Laughter)

  • Okay. Some bad news first.

  • People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year

  • had a 43 percent increased risk of dying.

  • But that was only true for the people

  • who also believed that stress is harmful for your health.

  • (Laughter)

  • People who experienced a lot of stress

  • but did not view stress as harmful

  • were no more likely to die.

  • In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying

  • of anyone in the study, including people

  • who had relatively little stress.

  • Now 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. (Laughter)

  • That is over 20,000 deaths a year.

  • Now, if that estimate is correct,

  • that would make believing stress is bad for you

  • the 15th largest cause of death

  • in the United States last year,

  • killing more people than skin cancer,

  • HIV/AIDS and homicide.

  • (Laughter)

  • You can see why this study freaked me out.

  • Here I've been spending so much energy telling people

  • stress is bad for your health.

  • So this study got me wondering:

  • Can changing how you think about stress

  • make you healthier? And here the science says yes.

  • When you change your mind about stress,

  • you can change your body's response to stress.

  • Now to explain how this works,

  • I want you all to pretend that you are participants

  • in a study designed to stress you out.

  • It's called the social stress test.

  • You come into the laboratory,

  • and you're told you have to give a five-minute

  • impromptu speech on your personal weaknesses

  • to a panel of expert evaluators sitting right in front of you,

  • and to make sure you feel the pressure,

  • there are bright lights and a camera in your face,

  • kind of like this.

  • And the evaluators have been trained

  • to give you discouraging, non-verbal feedback like this.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now that you're sufficiently demoralized,

  • time for part two: a math test.

  • And unbeknownst to you,

  • the experimenter has been trained to harass you during it.

  • Now we're going to all do this together.

  • It's going to be fun.

  • For me.

  • Okay. I want you all to count backwards

  • from 996 in increments of seven.

  • You're going to do this out loud

  • as fast as you can, starting with 996.

  • Go!

  • Audience: (Counting)

  • Go faster. Faster please.

  • You're going too slow.

  • Stop. Stop, stop, stop.

  • That guy made a mistake.

  • We are going to have to start all over again. (Laughter)

  • You're not very good at this, are you?

  • Okay, so you get the idea.

  • Now, if you were actually in this study,

  • you'd probably be a little stressed out.

  • Your heart might be pounding,

  • you might be breathing faster, maybe breaking out into a sweat.

  • And normally, we interpret these physical changes

  • as anxiety

  • or signs that we aren't coping very well with the pressure.

  • But what if you viewed them instead

  • as signs that your body was energized,

  • was preparing you to meet this challenge?

  • Now that is exactly what participants were told

  • in a study conducted at Harvard University.

  • Before they went through the social stress test,

  • they were taught to rethink their stress response as helpful.

  • That pounding heart is preparing you for action.

  • If you're breathing faster, it's no problem.

  • It's getting more oxygen to your brain.

  • And participants who learned to view the stress response

  • as helpful for their performance,

  • well, they were less stressed out,

  • less anxious, more confident,

  • but the most fascinating finding to me

  • was how their physical stress response changed.

  • Now, in a typical stress response,

  • your heart rate goes up,

  • and your blood vessels constrict like this.

  • And this is one of the reasons that chronic stress

  • is sometimes associated with cardiovascular disease.

  • It's not really healthy to be in this state all the time.

  • But in the study, when participants viewed

  • their stress response as helpful,

  • their blood vessels stayed relaxed like this.

  • Their heart was still pounding,

  • but this is a much healthier cardiovascular profile.

  • It actually looks a lot like what happens

  • in moments of joy and courage.

  • Over a lifetime of stressful experiences,

  • this one biological change

  • could be the difference

  • between a stress-induced heart attack at age 50

  • and living well into your 90s.

  • And this is really what the new science of stress reveals,

  • that how you think about stress matters.

  • So my goal as a health psychologist has changed.

  • I no longer want to get rid of your stress.

  • I want to make you better at stress.

  • And we just did a little intervention.

  • If you raised your hand and said

  • you'd had a lot of stress in the last year,

  • we could have saved your life,

  • because hopefully the next time

  • your heart is pounding from stress,

  • you're going to remember this talk

  • and you're going to think to yourself,

  • this is my body helping me rise to this challenge.

  • And when you view stress in that way,

  • your body believes you,

  • and your stress response becomes healthier.

  • Now I said I have over a decade of demonizing stress

  • to redeem myself from,

  • so we are going to do one more intervention.

  • I want to tell you about one of the most

  • under-appreciated aspects of the stress response,

  • and the idea is this:

  • Stress makes you social.

  • To understand this side of stress,

  • we need to talk about a hormone, oxytocin,

  • and I know oxytocin has already gotten

  • as much hype as a hormone can get.

  • It even has its own cute nickname, the cuddle hormone,

  • because it's released when you hug someone.

  • But this is a very small part of what oxytocin is involved in.

  • Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone.

  • It fine-tunes your brain's social instincts.

  • It primes you to do things

  • that strengthen close relationships.

  • Oxytocin makes you crave physical contact

  • with your friends and family.

  • It enhances your empathy.

  • It even makes you more willing to help and support

  • the people you care about.

  • Some people have even suggested

  • we should snort oxytocin

  • to become more compassionate and caring.

  • But here's what most people don't understand

  • about oxytocin.

  • It's a stress hormone.

  • Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out

  • as part of the stress response.

  • It's as much a part of your stress response

  • as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound.

  • And when oxytocin is released in the stress response,

  • it is motivating you to seek support.

  • Your biological stress response

  • is nudging you to tell someone how you feel

  • instead of bottling it up.

  • Your stress response wants to make sure you notice

  • when someone else in your life is struggling

  • so that you can support each other.

  • When life is difficult, your stress response wants you

  • to be surrounded by people who care about you.

  • Okay, so how is knowing this side of stress

  • going to make you healthier?

  • Well, oxytocin doesn't only act on your brain.

  • It also acts on your body,

  • and one of its main roles in your body

  • is to protect your cardiovascular system

  • from the effects of stress.

  • It's a natural anti-inflammatory.

  • It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress.

  • But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart.

  • Your heart has receptors for this hormone,

  • and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate

  • and heal from any stress-induced damage.

  • This stress hormone strengthens your heart,

  • and the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits

  • of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact

  • and social support,

  • so when you reach out to others under stress,

  • either to seek support or to help someone else,

  • you release more of this hormone,

  • your stress response becomes healthier,

  • and you actually recover faster from stress.

  • I find this amazing,

  • that your stress response has a built-in mechanism

  • for stress resilience,

  • and that mechanism is human connection.

  • I want to finish by telling you about one more study.

  • And listen up, because this study could also save a life.

  • This study tracked about 1,000 adults in the United States,

  • and they ranged in age from 34 to 93,

  • and they started the study by asking,

  • "How much stress have you experienced in the last year?"

  • They also asked, "How much time have you spent

  • helping out friends, neighbors,

  • people in your community?"

  • And then they used public records for the next five years

  • to find out who died.

  • Okay, so the bad news first:

  • For every major stressful life experience,

  • like financial difficulties or family crisis,

  • that increased the risk of dying by 30 percent.

  • But -- and I hope you are expecting a but by now --

  • but that wasn't true for everyone.

  • People who spent time caring for others

  • showed absolutely no stress-related increase in dying. Zero.

  • Caring created resilience.

  • And so we see once again

  • that the harmful effects of stress on your health

  • are not inevitable.

  • How you think and how you act