Kelly McGonigal is a Stanford University health psychologist. She seeks to translate academic research into practical strategies for health, happiness and personal success. The following 14 minutes talk by her illustrates the power of how our thinking about stress dramatically affects our overall health and well-being.


Her talk is based on 3 observations.

The first starts with a 2012 study that tracked 30,000 adults in the United States for 8 years. The study was based on 2 simple questions:

  1. How much stress have you experienced in the last year?
  2. Do you believe stress is harmful for your health?

What is fascinating is that those who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% increased risk of dying, but that was only true for those who also believed stress is harmful for your health. In fact those who experienced a lot of stress, but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. They actually had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including those who had relatively little stress.

The staggering conclusion form the study is that over the 8 years the study was conducted 182,000 Americans died not from stress, but from simply believing stress is bad for you. Her extrapolation is that believing stress is bad for you was in 2012 the 15th largest cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicide.

The important conclusion from this is when you change your thinking about stress you can change your body’s response to stress.

So typically when you are having a stress response your heart rate goes up and your blood vessels constrict. The key is how you interpret those physiological symptoms. When someone views their stress response as helpful then their cardiovascular profile resembled what happens in moments of joy and courage.

Quoting from McGonigal:

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 what the new science of stress reveals, that how you think about stress matters.

The 2nd observation is understanding how when we are stressed, in addition to secreting more adrenaline, one of the other hormones we secrete is oxytocin.

Oxytocin has the effect on making us want to connect with others – it actually enhances empathy, compassion and caring. Its other important action is that it protects your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It reduces inflammation, helps blood vessels stay relaxed and helps heat cells regenerate as well as heal from any stress-induced damage.

In addition these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and support. So your stress response has a built in mechanism for stress resilience which is human connection.

The 3rd observation comes from a study that tracked 1000 American adults between the ages of 34 to 93. Once again two simple questions were asked:

  1. How much stress have you experienced in the last year?
  2. How much time have you spent helping out friends, neighbours and people in your community?

By then examining public health records they were able to look at death rates in this group of people. What they found was that for every major stressful experience (for example financial problems or a family crisis) there was a 30% increased risk of dying. However, for those who spent time caring for others that was no stress-related increased risk of dying. In other words  caring for others created resilience.

McGonigal is able to summarise this into:

” When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience….When you embrace stress, you can transform fear into courage, isolation into connection and suffering into meaning.”

How has this helped your view of stress?

For more on stress also see the podcast and resources on stress here.