(But Not for the Reason You Think)

stressStress — that feeling you experience when things don’t go according to plan, when your boss says that your deadline has been moved to yesterday, or when your child won’t stop screaming in the middle of the supermarket aisle. People define stress in various ways, but it always comes down to external and internal demands that tax our resources and our ability to deal with our current situation. Different things stress different people out, but when asked about their overall stress levels, many people will say they’re “through the roof.” In other words, pretty intense.

Researching the relationship between stress and health can be challenging because of the many different ways stress manifests in people. Some experience stress primarily as an emotion, while others are affected in a more physical way (headaches, upset stomach and so on). Still others experience it as a combination of the two. Regardless of where you fall on this stress manifestation continuum, stress is almost certainly affecting your health in some way. Chronic stress has been linked to a number of health deficits; including irritable bowel syndrome, back pain, headaches and even cardiovascular disease. If you suffer from a chronic health issue, chances are you’ve been advised by your health care professional to reduce your stress levels. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Remarkably, some evidence suggests that hearing this message and taking it to heart may actually make you sicker.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin- Madison explored data from the US National Health Survey to determine the relationships between stress levels, the perception that stress affects health, and health and mortality outcomes. In other words, it asked how many people have literally died from stress — precisely because they believed their stress was killing them. What the researchers found was that people who experienced high stress levels and believed that that stress was killing them were more likely to die than those who had similar stress but did not believe it was affecting their health.

If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. What happens when your doctor tells you that you have to reduce your stress levels? You suddenly have yet another stressor to deal with. Consciously or not, you’ll tend to believe that stress is a threat to your health. Why else would your doctor bring it up?

The findings in this study suggest that we need to change our relationship with stress. The Buddhist concept of “The Second Arrow” comes to mind: When we experience a troubling emotion (the first arrow) we tend to judge ourselves and stress over it (the second arrow). What if we instead learned to simply accept the “first arrow” for what it is– a feeling that arises, stays for a while, and then subsides? When we take care of the wound inflicted by that arrow — and focus on healing it without self-judgment — our relationship with our emotions changes in a subtle but powerful way. We’re no longer doubling our suffering with every painful emotion we experience by adding guilt and self-reproach to the mix.

Stress is an inescapable part of our daily lives. Once we learn to see it as an emotional and/or physiological adaptation to help us to deal more effectively with the world, we’ll be able to take stress on in a positive way– and without the crippling belief that it is killing us.