How to make stress your friend

This is a summary of a talk on TED by Kelly McGonigal.

Stress and the Stress Reaction

Basically when we get stressed, our heart rate increases and our breathing gets faster, blood flows faster, you sweat. This is our body responding to the stress by getting ready for action – the fight/flight response.

Many research projects over many decades have consistently shown that a lot of stress is damaging to your health, causing heart attacks and other illnesses.

Stress Beliefs

However, further studies have looked at the attitudes of people to their stress. They have found that these health problems are only experienced by people who believe that stress is harmful. Those who say stress as a positive, a source of energy, did not have health problems. In fact they were healthier than people who had low-stress lives.

So our belief system around stress is the problem!

This discovery is a game-changer in our understanding of stress and stress management.

Relearn Your Stress Response

So, can you use this knowledge to get better at stress, or is your stress response genetic, just how you are built?

It turns out that your stress response can be re-learned. People who have a negative response can learn a positive response.

This is done by changing your belief about the stress reaction. The raised pulse, heavy breathing, sweating, is your body helping you by responding to the stressful situation in a way that gives you more energy. You can then choose to use the energy provided by this response.

When you self-talk in this way, your body believes you and responds with a ‘good’ stress response.

Heart studies show that people who believe stress is harmful get constriction in their arteries when stressed, whereas people who believe that stress is good, do not get this.

Social Connection

The other finding that came out of this study is that stress provokes Oxytocin release, a hormone which encourages socialisation. In other words, your natural reaction to stress is to reach out to others and share the problem.

Further studies have shown that Oxytocin seems to strengthen the heart, increasing your capacity for stress.

This is a two-way street. Being sociable increases your Oxytocin, so has the same strengthening of the heart and resilience to stress. For example, people suffering bereavement typically have more ill health as a result. But people who help others do not, they cope with the stress of bereavement without health consequences.


Stress is dangerous if it is seen that way.

You can protect yourself from the health risks of stress in three ways:

  1. reduce your stress
  2. re-learn your stress response
  3. help others

Or maybe do all of these! Rather than reduce stress in your life, it is better to pursue your interests and deal with any stress consequences if and when they arise.

This is a summary of a talk on TED by Kelly McGonigal, do watch the original talk.