Have we been thinking about stress all wrong?

By Charles Tan, Class of 2016

I become stress > I feel stressed about being stressed > I do nothing. Image Credit Andrew Imanaka, Flickr

No one likes stress very much. We’ve always been told we needed to deal with our stress by getting rid of it. But is that even possible? What if stress isn’t as harmful as we first thought and it’s just been misunderstood?


When we think of stress, we almost always paint it in a negative light. “I hate feeling stressed” or “Stress is public enemy number 1” are some things we may hear. Stress has even been blamed for a whole array of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, one of the world’s biggest killers.

If we do a quick search on how to deal with our stressors, we commonly find a list that consists of

  • Get some exercise
  • Find volunteering opportunities
  • Practice mindfulness and be grateful
  • Get more sleep at regular intervals -> yeh right, like that’s going to happen!

All these ways of dealing with stress have 1 thing in common. They try to work around the stress, rather than tackle stress itself.

But what if stress isn’t necessarily bad and we’ve just been thinking of stress wrong? Research has shown that by thinking positively about stress, we actually can create the biology of courage – which leads to increased motivation, optimism and a much much nicer experience when going through stressful situations!

Does it really affect our health?

A study in the US in 2011 tried to find a relationship between a person’s level of stress, and their perception of stress as harmful. They decided to also measure this against deaths over the study period of 9 years.
What they found was that for participants who experienced high-levels of stress over the past year had a 43% increased rate of mortality. BUT, this only applied to those who also thought stress was harmful for them.

According to estimates from this research, just the thought that stress is bad for us causes about 20,000 deaths a year! If those estimates are accurate, that makes it Australia’s leading cause of death. That’s one incentive to stop thinking of stress as bad.

A different angle: Enjoying some alone time rather than being stressed? Image Credit wan mohd, Flickr

So how can we think about stress positively?

Think back to a stressful situation you had recently. Do you remember some of your body’s responses to stress? A racing heart, you’re starting to breathe faster, maybe you started sweating and your hands started getting cold and you got the shakes?
What if we thought positively about those responses? What if these stress responses were our body’s way of meeting the challenge we’re about to face?

  • Our increased heartrate – increased blood supply to energise us
  • Breathing harder – more oxygen
  • Sweating – because we’re just basking in the warmth of the spotlight
  • Shakes – Sorry I wish there was a solution but all of us face it!

Thinking about stress positively actually maintains our cardiovascular blood vessels at healthy levels. This is crucial because most of stress-related diseases are caused by a tightening of blood vessels.

Why does positive thinking work?

Oxytocin. What is also known as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone, oxytocin drives us to find social contact with other people. Oxytocin had previously been thought to be released only during social contact, but recent studies have indicated that it is a stress hormone and is released when we’re feeling stressed.

It is our body’s natural de-stressor. Oxytocin has been found to reduce anxiety, stress, and promote pro-social behaviours such as trust, empathy and openness! It is this combination of factors that helps build our biology of courage. What’s even more interesting is oxytocin keeps our blood vessels at healthy levels.

Feeling stressed about Climate change > talk to friends about making change > feels so much better. Image by Author

Next time you find yourself feeling stressed and desperately seeking the company of your friends or family, don’t blame yourself as being weak, blame the oxytocin! It’s not your fault if it’s your body’s natural biological response.

I mentioned earlier that oxytocin is released during social contact. When you meet with others when you’re stressed, your body actually releases more oxytocin which builds into what I’d like to call, a resilience to stress.

Stress can affect us at anytime, unfortunately, even at the most inopportune of times. We might not always be able to control how it impacts us, but we can definitely control how we respond to feeling stress. Thinking about stress positively may not change the outcome, but it can most certainly improve the experience of the stressful situation. 
When you are feeling stressed in the future, think positively, and let social connection do the rest! 

A great book to consider if you’d like to learn more about positive thinking in stress: The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You by Kelly McGonigal.

Kelly McGonigal also spoke on TED about Making stress our friend.