I’m posting this because I want people to understand 2 things:
- stress is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, can be used to your advantage
- “mind over matter” is real, and this is just one study proves that how we perceive something can have a physical impact on our bodies
In a 2012 Harvard University study, researchers found that changing the way we think about stress can have physiological changes. In this particular study, participants were told that stress should be thought of as something functional that aids performance, rather than something that is negative.
Take public speaking, for example. Ranking higher than the fear of death, the fear public speaking (glossophobia) is the number one fear, affecting approximately 25% of the population. Assuming you don’t have to publicly speak every day, this task would only cause acute, or short term, stress. In reality, disease is more highly related to chronic, or long term, stress such as emails, traffic, conflicts, bills, dehydration, sleep deprivation, etc. Regardless of the length of time you’re exposed to the stress, there is a reaction in your body called the ‘stress response’. This typical stress response involves your nervous and endocrine systems, causing your brain to release hormones that will help you save yourself from the so-called ‘threat’. A few things happen in your body as a result, one of which is vasoconstriction, which means your blood vessels contract.
When vasoconstriction happens, your blood vessels, which are diverting blood to your heart, narrow. Now think about it…when you’re under stress, you want a super efficient cardiovascular system (which includes your blood vessels which transport oxygen to your heart) so that you can fight or flee from your threat. Instead, when you’re stressed, even short term, this narrowing of the vessels causes a shortage of nutrients and oxygen (which are transported by the blood) to the heart. The result can be anything from chest pain to more severe cardiovascular disease, if maintained over the long run.
Now that you understand that blood vessels typically constrict during stress and that this constriction can actually stop blood, oxygen and nutrients from getting to your heart, let’s get back to the study. After being asked to complete a public-speaking task amongst a few other stressful tasks, the percentage of the group who was educated about how to interpret stress as something functional that benefits performance physically showed less vasoconstriction, which is proof that how you perceive your stress can physically impact your body.
So next time you’re nervous, agitated, or simply stressed out, think about what could happen in your body and then shift the way you think about that stress. Take a few deep breaths, get your breathing rate and heart rate under control, and even visualize your blood vessels maintaining their shape, and that everything in your body is calm, cool and collected. You might not be able to see what’s happening in your body, but you’ll likely be able to feel it. And there is no better feeling than knowing you’ve got your life under control.