People who experienced a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43 percent increased risk of dying. But that was only true for the people who also believed that stress is harmful for your health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.
~Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.
I’ve been mulling over this TED talk from Kelly McGonigal for days now. Everywhere I turn, it seems like someone is talking about how they need to reduce the stress in their lives. But Kelly gave the surprising advice that embracing stress is both healthy and simple.
While I encourage you to watch the video, I’ll give you the highlights. She says that stress is harmful because of its effect on the heart. It causes high blood pressure and damage to the heart muscles. But by understanding the body’s response to stress, believing that it’s good, and seeking support during stressful events, our body actually heals itself. How cool is that?
Kelly doesn’t specifically address kids, so I turned her advice into three ways that you can help your kids benefit from everyday stress.
Explain how the stress response helps prepare their body for action
Have your kids think about a time they were stressed. Maybe before a big test, when they got angry at someone, or when they were afraid.
Help them learn to recognize some of the physical changes that stress causes, and how those changes help them deal with the stressful situation.
- Pounding heart: Gets blood to the muscles so they can run, fight, or move heavy objects
- Red face and/or chest: Blood vessels dilate to get blood to the muscles
- Faster breathing: Provides more oxygen to the brain and muscles
And some effects they can’t see or feel
- Strengthens the immune system: Immune cells are produced and moved to the skin, lungs, and gut (places that are likely to get injured during fight or flight)
- Primes the brain for learning. That’s one reason why we can more easily remember highly emotional events.
Recognizing these signs of stress and seeing them as helpful rather than harmful is a key to making stress beneficial.
Be physically present when they are having a hard time
You may have already heard of oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone.” It’s produced when we fall in love, nurse a baby, or give someone a hug.
Our bodies also produce oxytocin in response to stress.
This protects our bodies by lowering blood pressure and helping the heart repair damage caused by stress.
And the more loving physical touch we receive, the more oxytocin our bodies produce. So the next time your child is upset, instead of sending them to their room, give them a hug or a massage. You’ll be helping heal the effects of stress on their body.
Ask, “How can I help?”
Oxytocin also causes us to seek support from caring people when we feel stressed. And one of the best ways to show support is to offer tangible help.
Rachel Macy Stafford describes in heart-warming detail how she received help from her sister during a difficult time in her life, then later used that example to help her own daughter cope with her own challenge.
“Asking, ‘How can I help?’ acknowledges someone’s struggle and lightens the load without pushing for further details or explanation.” Rachel says. It shows support, not judgement.
Give your child plenty of time to think of ways you can help, but if she’s stuck, offer some suggestions.
As much as we might like to, we can’t get rid of the stress in our lives or our kids lives. But we can help them deal with it, and in the process, strengthen our relationship with them.
What about you? Tell me in the comments: How can you change your perspective on stress? How will you use these three strategies when your kids are feeling stressed?