Can we make stress our friend?

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Editor’s note: The following article was first published by the Miner Institute Farm Report, available here.

Who does not have some amount of stress in their life that they would love to get rid of? Additionally who would not want to make that stress a positive aspect of their life?

Sounds a bit like an infomercial, but I recently watched a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal on “How to make stress your friend” after admittedly being hooked by the title. McGonigal highlighted that we could make stress our friend with the help of a little science.

In a recent study, 30,000 adults in the U.S. were followed after filling out a survey asking them the amount of stress they had experienced the preceding year and if they believed that experiencing stress had negative impacts on their health.

People that reported experiencing a lot of stress had a 43% greater chance of dying, but only if they believed that stress negatively impacted their health. In fact over the course of the 8 years the study was conducted, 182,000 deaths in the United States could be estimated to have been attributed to believing that stress negatively impacts health.

Meanwhile, those people that had high levels of stress but did not believe it had negative impacts on health had some of the lowest death rates. What this study, along with others, tells us is that through changing our outlook on stress we may be able to make it our friend.

As with cows, humans release oxytocin in response to outside triggers such as a baby crying or to stress! Oxytocin is released from the pituitary gland in response to stress much like adrenaline is released to enable the fight or flight response.

Oxytocin has also been dubbed the “cuddle hormone” in popular press articles as it is what fine tunes our social behavior. This means that oxytocin is a hormone that drives humans to talk to other humans in an attempt to strengthen interpersonal relationships.

When oxytocin levels are high in dairy cows, lying and rumination time increase, feed seeking behavior decreases, and social interaction between cows increases. Oxytocin also has anti-inflammatory properties and aids in heart cell regeneration from stress-induced damage. These beneficial properties of oxytocin are enhanced in caring social situations particularly when you are able to help others via human connection.

In another study, the link between giving and stress was assessed in order to determine if social support buffered the detrimental effects of stress.

Participants were asked to rank their stress level over the preceding year as well as the amount of time they spent helping or giving to others.

The researchers concluded that while stressful events increased the risk of dying by 30%, those that helped and cared for others while still experiencing stress had no increased risk.

These researchers also evaluated the “dose-response” of helping on stress and observed that caring for others less than 20 hours over one year tended to have the strongest ability to buffer the negative impacts of stress regardless of socioeconomic factor, health variables, personality, or demographics.

What this means is that even though we all experience some amount of stress during the year, if we choose to look at stress positively we can change our fate.

Additionally, through helping others for as little as 30 minutes a week, we force biology to kick in and protect our heart from the damage of stress and enrich our lives further.

So with the holiday season approaching, think of what cows have taught us: wake up in a happy mooo-d, stick with the herd, and when stress hits just go with the flow…of milk.

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