Why Stress Is Your Friend

Everything goes quiet as you gather your thoughts in silence. Your heart starts to pound; it’s like your heartbeat is in your throat. Your palms turn slightly sweaty and you doubt everything you’ve learned that led you to this point.

No, this isn’t the closing scene of “8 Mile.” No, you haven’t just been arrested and no, this isn’t your first date.

It’s exam day. Whether that be in the form of scantrons and #2 pencils; public speaking and a stopwatch; or a TI-83 and a handwritten formula sheet, stress is the worst test-anxiety factor that we all suffer from sooner or later.

But there’s two-sides to every story, so allow us to introduce you to a side of stress you didn’t know.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal spoke of the other side of stress during her 14-minute TED Talk in September 2013.

She references three astonishing studies. We’ll breakdown the breakthroughs:

1. Stress isn’t bad for you. . . Unless you let it be

In the first study, University of Wisconsin tracked 30,000 US adults for eight years. They were asked about long-term stress levels as well as their belief if stress is harmful to their health.

182000 Americans die prematurely

The bad news: Those describing a large amount of stress had a 43 percent increased risk of dying.

The good news: Those who did not believe stress was harmful to their health were no more likely to die.

When researchers multiplied their findings on a national scale, they found that this negative view on stress kills over 20,000 Americans per year. This means the idea of stress kills more than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS and homicides.

Top 10 causes of death

2. Stress can be an ally

A second study from Harvard monitored heart patterns during a series of induced stress tests.

The bad news: When the majority of participants succumb to stress, their blood vessels will restrict (see top circle of photo). This can cause risks to higher blood pressure for those experiencing frequent stress.

The good news: Select participants were taught to think of stress as an ally. While their physical symptoms (increased heart rate, heavier breathing, etc.) stayed the same, their blood vessels stayed relaxed (bottom circle).

Blood Vessels

Harvard researchers also studied a hormone released under periods of stress. Oxytocin, nicknamed the “cuddle hormone,” is released from the brain when you give or receive a hug.


This innocent-sounding hormone acts as a natural anti-inflammatory, allowing blood vessels to stay relaxed under stress. In addition, when heart receptors receive oxytocin, heart cells regenerate and repair any stress-related damage. This is the same reaction experienced during moments of joy or courage.

oxytocin heart

As if things couldn’t get any better, oxytocin also drives our inner-dependence on close social circles.

In clearer terms: our stress-response naturally drives us to seek social support from friends and family during times of stress.

3. We handle stress better when we ask–or give-help to loved ones.

The third study, conducted by the University of Buffalo, asked US adults both how stressful they were and how often they give back to their friends, family or community.

The bad news: For every family crisis, financial struggle or other stressful life experience, the risk of dying increased 30 percent.

The good news: For those who spend time caring for others, they had zero(!!!) stress-related increase in dying.

So unlike popular belief, stress isn’t the enemy. The discouraging side effects can be avoided.

So while you study for that next exam, remember that the familiar feeling creeping up on you shouldn’t be feared, but welcomed. How we think — and act — can reverse your negative stress experience.

Make the choice to view your rising heart rate and sweaty palms as courage, not stress.

It’s a win/win!