I don’t like statistics because…well, I just don’t like them. But here are a few that I need to share before I get started: 1 in 5 Americans experience “extreme stress;” stress increases the risk of heart disease by 40%, and the risk of stroke by 60%; stress is the basic cause of 60% of all human illnesses. (statistics from The American Institute of Stress…who would know better?)
It’s obvious that stress is a big, negative part of our lives. Here’s good news, however: I listened today to a speaker talk about a study done by Harvard that surveyed people about their stress levels, their beliefs about how stress affected their health, and then checked public death listings for those people. What they found was that people who reported a high amount of stress were somewhere around 30% more likely to die in the next year. BUT, the people who reported high stress levels but didn’t believe stress negatively affected their health were actually less likely to die in the next year than people who reported little to no stress in their lives.
Okay, so what does this mean? Well, firstly, it basically supports what I talk about in my book: the unlimited power of the human mind. Secondly, it means that it doesn’t matter how much stress we have in our lives. What really matters is how we think it affects us. Good news, because this means that it doesn’t affect our health, and that if you’re reading this right now you can start to believe that it doesn’t harm you, and you’ll instantly be healthier (okay, maybe not instantly).
Something I’ve learned in the books I’ve been reading recently and in a few different areas of study is that our bodies are efficient and productive. Think about pain. We usually think of pain as a negative thing, but pain is a good thing. If you put your hand down on a hot stove (classic example), nerve endings in your hand fire up your arm on their way to your brain. Normally, if the brain receives these pain impulses, it acts quickly to move away from the source of pain. What’s more amazing is that our bodies are so efficient that it sends them to the spinal cord which reacts for you, instead of letting the pain impulses get all the way to your brain. Your body is optimized to use pain in a positive way. Without pain, we wouldn’t know what was damaging our body.
Stress and anxiety are things we usually think are negative, but if we just trust the efficiency of our bodies, we can assume that these are also positive responses. Let’s take public speaking as an example. You get up in front of people and you start sweating and your heart starts racing. We usually think, “crap, I’m getting nervous.” Instead, think of this response as a positive message your body is sending in response to an input. You have a fear of forgetting what you were going to say and of being embarrassed. So you’re pituitary gland pumps adrenaline into your blood to help you focus and overcome what we’re afraid of.
If you can learn to think about stress and anxiety not as negative things, but as a natural and helpful response to life, it’s easier not to let it bother you. Don’t think about stress as harmful to your health, because thinking that can be harmful. But also, it’s just a natural, helpful response from your body to the outside world.