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How to Make Stress Your Friend: The Biology of Resilience

One of the exciting developments in medical science in recent years has been a deepening of our understanding of how the body affects the mind—and especially of how the mind affects the body. This interaction is particularly clear when it comes to the brain. We have known for some time, for instance, that activities that keep the mind active can help prevent the build-up of toxins in the brain that cause dementia.


Another mind-body connection we’re all familiar with—or think we are—has to do with stress. We all know that stress can kill you, don’t we? We’ve all been told we must lower our stress levels for the sake of our health.

But a TED talk from health psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers a completely new approach to stress. It begins by understanding that it’s not stress that’s the problem, she says; it’s how we think about stress.

We can teach our minds to think of our stress response this way: "This is my body helping me rise to this challenge."

McGonigal has some studies to back up her assertion, but for me, what’s really convincing is how true her psychological-physiological explanation rings. She starts with experiences we’ve all had. What happens to your body when you’re under stress? Your heart pounds, and you breathe faster. You may know, in an abstract way, why this happens: your heart and lungs are working together to get oxygen to your muscles to prepare you to either stand and face that saber-toothed tiger who’s about to attack you or to run away from it: fight or flight.

Only it’s not usually such things as saber-toothed tigers that are causing us stress these days. More often, it’s relationship troubles, money and job worries, health scares: no literal fighting or running needed, but the stress is real. McGonigal says that instead of thinking of stress as the enemy—so that stress itself becomes yet another stressor, now creating an endless loop—we can teach our minds to think of our stress response this way: “This is my body helping me rise to this challenge.”

Sometimes our body’s stress response can be overzealous—that’s what a panic attack is. I’ve heard of one system of therapy that teaches people to manage panic attacks by speaking to the panic itself with kindness and even gratitude: “Thank you for trying to protect me. But the danger is not grave. So please stand down.” The “thank you” recognizes the body’s response as fundamentally benevolent, not toxic.

But McGonigal goes further. She says that one surprising thing that stress does for you—this is something I’d never heard before—is make you more social. How does stress promote human relationships? By causing the release of oxytocin, which is a stress hormone just as much as adrenalin is. But it’s when we ask why our bodies make us more social in response to stress that we see how everything comes together: oxytocin motivates you to seek support, in whatever situation is causing your stress, from other humans.

Not only does oxytocin promote human relationships to help you deal with stress, but it actually has an anti-inflammatory and healing effect on your heart and a relaxing effect on your blood vessels. In other words, says McGonigal, “Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.”

So instead of being at the mercy of an endless loop of stress—stress causing more stress, which causes more stress, and so on—we can cultivate an endless loop of resilience through human connection: stress causes the production of oxytocin, which encourages human connection, which produces more oxytocin. The trick, apparently, is simply to cooperate with the process.

So McGonigal’s research gives us a whole new way of dealing with stress:

  1. Start by thinking of your stress response as helpful.
  2. Listen to your body’s prompting to seek support from others, which will, in turn, increase your oxytocin production, offering even more protective benefits to your body.
  3. Even when you’re not stressed out yourself, encourage the production of oxytocin by caring for others, which will make you more physically resilient to stress.

McGonigal sums it up for us: “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.