Can we really make friends with stress?

Well, Dr. Kelly McGonigal says we can. She introduces us to new research which just might change the way you view stress. She is the author of several books, with her latest book being appropriately called the “The Upside of Stress.” Her 2013 TED talk, "How to Make Stress Your Friend," is one of the 20 Most Viewed TED talks of all time, with 10 million views!! I just watched this TED talk a few days ago in a class and it has really given me a new perspective on stress. Stress is serious business and a threat to our health, so anything we can do to improve the effects of stress on our lives is a very good thing!

This will be 14 minutes of your time well spent. It’s not one of the top viewed TED talks of all time for no reason!

Briefly, Kelly McGonigal references studies and tests that show that the way we think about stress has an impact on how stress actually affects our health.

Those who believe that stress is bad for their health are more likely to suffer a stress related issue like a heart attack as opposed to those who also experienced stress but do not believe that it affects their health.

Helpful versus Harmful

When people viewed their stress responses as helpful versus harmful their stress response changed. In a typical stress response our heart rate will increase and our blood vessels will constrict, which is detrimental to our heart health, however, those who perceived these responses as positive signs such as your pounding heart is preparing you for the challenge ahead and your fast breathing is helping to get more oxygen to the brain actually changed their physical stress response. Their heart rate still increased but their blood vessels did not constrict. Over the course of a lifetime this type of thinking and response can be the difference between dying young of a heart attack or living to an old age.

Oxytocin affects the stress response

Oxytocin is probably best known for being the cuddle hormone, but it is actually also a stress hormone. When oxytocin is released during the stress response it encourages you to reach out to friends and family for support so you don’t carry the burden of stress alone and it also increases your desire to reach out and help someone else who may be in need.

Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory helping to keep your blood vessels relaxed during stress and it actually helps the heart cells repair and heal from the damage caused by stress. This reaction is increased by social interaction, so when you connect with others during a time of stress you release more oxytocin which helps you recover from stress even faster. People who have a more positive view of stress and those who help others, build up more stress resilience through caring.

"Stress gives us access to our hearts."

She ends by saying “Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart working so hard to give you strength and energy, and when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re making a profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”

Are you ready to make friends with stress? Let me know what you think in the comments below.


Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University.