Matt Johnson is the preventative program coordinator at St. Francis Workwell and a graduate of Furman University who has been living in Greenville for the past 16 years. He enjoys running, hiking, participating in his church community, and spending time with his wife and four children.
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is an established health psychologist who recently recorded a TED talk on “How to make stress your friend.” Due to my interest in stress research, I watched it several times, analyzing the message and the research supporting her conclusions.
One of the most interesting studies she mentioned was conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Researchers asked 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year and had them describe how much stress influenced their health. Then public death records were used to determine the passing of participants over the next eight years. This research determined that participants who reported high levels of stress and who believed stress had a huge impact on their health had a 43 percent increase in risk of death.
What was even more interesting was that participants who reported high levels of stress but believed that stress did not have a negative effect on health were among the least likely to die within the study population, even in comparison with some who reported experiencing only a little stress. Using this population sample to estimate the mortality impact, McGonigal came to this conclusion: The belief that stress has negative effects on health is the 15th largest cause of death annually.
Further research has been conducted to determine the physiology behind this finding. A study done at Harvard taught participants the intervention to be grateful for the body’s stress response. They were educated on how this response primed them for higher performance during times when need was greatest.
Those who utilized this perspective effectively were more successful in performing under a high-pressure situation. Also their blood vessels responded more appropriately – instead of the typical response of constriction, increasing the risk of heart damage, these participants’ vessels dilated – very similar to what happens when people experience joy and courage.
This was attributed to an increase in a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone had originally been associated with childbirth and mother/baby bonding, but after further research it was found to be much more influential. As a hormone, it has a long résumé of creating the feelings of empathy and compassion, motivating individuals to reach out for social contact, forming and strengthening bonds in relationships, causing dilation of blood vessels, and even having a role in controlling blood pressure, decreasing diabetes risk, and facilitating heart tissue repair after a stress event.
This research intrigued me, for it offers support for the idea that a person’s perception of something like the stress response can determine positive or negative outcomes. Health promotion interventions historically have only focused on behaviors like exercise frequency and nutrition habits. Rarely do they connect with a person’s belief system or overall perceptions to assist them in developing a clear perspective that promotes health.
Within the field of psychology, experts like Martin Seligman, Ph.D., have researched interventions that assist in bringing clarity to perceptions of reality, even during times of high stress. These interventions improve quality of life and performance among populations. They are very familiar but have become harder to incorporate due to side effects of technology and living in a culture of entitlement. Each intervention builds strength by renewing a healthy perspective.
Participants record statements of gratitude every day and express written thanks to the individual responsible.
Fight the multitasking epidemic. Be aware of the present and those within your radius. Refrain from checking mobile devices during conversations or meetings. Instead, focus full attention and maintain eye contact.
Acts of kindness/volunteering in the community:
Examples are sending an encouraging email, paying for a stranger’s coffee further back in line, or volunteering in a local soup kitchen.
Some studies have shown these interventions have the added benefit of increasing oxytocin levels and promoting human connection, positive side effects that boost resilience in life. These interventions are not about ignoring the tragic and the frustrating events that occur. Rather, these are tools that assist in maintaining a balanced perspective of life that allows individuals to deal with difficult events more effectively. As a disclaimer, these tools do not replace medical care for individuals with issues that require the assistance of a medical specialist.
As research supporting these interventions gains momentum, companies should consider finding ways to implement them within their corporate culture.
An appropriate implementation plan would include education and creating an employee forum for the expression that comes out of these interventions. All employees within an organization are important and vital to the success of culture change.
Partnership and communication are crucial in moving forward to a common goal. It is not an easy task, but the prize of heightened health for all involved is worth the fight.