Stress can do a body good

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of “The Upside of Stress”, helps people rethink stress by telling them that it is what we feel when something we care about is at stake. She asks them to make two lists: of things that stress them; and of things that matter to them. “People realise that if they eliminated all stress their lives would not have much meaning,” she says. “We need to give up the fantasy that you can have everything you want without stress.”

In 2012 a group of scientists in America looked back at the 1998 National Health Interview Survey, which included questions about how much stress the 30,000 participants had experienced in the previous year, and whether they believed stress harmed their health. Next, they pored over mortality records to find out which respondents had died. They found that those who both reported high stress and believed it was harming their health had a 43% higher risk of premature death. Those who reported high stress but did not believe it was hurting them were less likely to die early than those who reported little stress.

The study shows correlation, not causation. But since much stress is unavoidable, working out how to harness it may be wiser than fruitless attempts to banish it.

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