For decades we’ve been told this one thing: stress makes you sick.
How many times, when you’ve been knee-deep in tension, anxiety and all-around exhaustion, have you made it all worse by then adding the thought that if you don’t get a hold of yourself you may wind up in your doctor’s office, or worse still, the hospital?
The possibility of making ourselves “stress sick” is really the last thing we need to think about when rushing to meet a work deadline, or braving the mall parking lot just to find that one gift we forgot on our holiday shopping list.
But the big ‘S’, according to the experts, is the enemy we must avoid at all costs, or at least make respectable efforts to reduce. But who has time for that? Surely such efforts would only serve to add to our stress levels?
Let’s test the theory…
Imagine, for a moment, that you are stuck in a backlog of traffic with many other frustrated Christmas shoppers at the mall. You’ve been waiting for a parking spot for half an hour now, slowly following a dozen other cars as you weave in and out of the isles, hoping and praying that a parked car right in front of you will magically spring to life. It doesn’t happen. You feel your chest tighten, your hands clench around the wheel, and you begin to wonder if Aunt Jemima really needs another gift basket of floral teas anyway (didn’t you buy her that same gift last year?) It’s right about now that you may start telling yourself to CALM DOWN. You can almost feel your immune system cowering under the glare of its arch enemy, Stress, and you begin to panic at the thought that perhaps this year, Christmas really will kill you. Soon, it’s not the mall parking lot that is the cause of your anxiety but rather what your anxiety about your anxiety might do to you.
Complicated, huh? Our minds can get that way. But there is good news my friend…
According to researcher Kelly McGonigal, a Health Psychologist from the US, it’s not stress that’s the bad guy in our efforts to stay healthy, but rather what we think about our stress.
After years of telling her patients that stress will make them sick, McGonigal came across some research that blew the lid off her advice. The mind is a powerful machine and doctors are becoming increasingly aware of its impact on health. If we tell ourselves that something will make us sick and we invest our power of thinking into that belief system, it is quite likely that we will indeed make ourselves sick. This theory is not unlike the placebo effect, in which we may tell ourselves that the medicine we take is making us feel better, when in fact we may be taking no more than a sugar pill.
McGonigal’s talk is refreshing and quite honestly a welcome respite from the pressure we put on ourselves to reduce the stress in our lives. Personally I find the prospect of changing my thought patterns far more achievable than reducing the actual stress in my life, which in this season would be a challenge.
I invite you to watch McGonigal’s talk, which also discusses some of the benefits of stress (who knew?) And whether you breeze through this holiday season, or wade through it with gritted teeth, may you remember that stress itself won’t kill you, but the way you think about it just might.