Reality Check: Can your Belief Change your Reality?

Many of us feel stressed. Challenges, fears, upsets, and disappointments abound. People, institutions, politicians, employers and many others don’t behave as we want them to.

A lot of those stressors are outside of our control. And even though we know that we can’t control them, we may still feel stressed by them. Plus, there’s stress from the things that we can control but just haven’t quite gotten round to controlling yet.

That’s a lot of stress.

Now, it’s common knowledge that stress is bad for us. But what if that common knowledge isn’t correct?

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University has found some interesting information about stress and its effect on our bodies. She says that it’s not the stress itself that is bad for us. What’s bad is the belief that our stress is bad for us.

How’s that for a new perspective?

McGonigal references research that indicates that a person with a high level of stress and a belief that stress is bad for them does, indeed, have a higher probability of dying than someone with low levels of stress.

However, if you believe that stress is just a normal, healthy response to life events and challenges, then even if you have a high level of stress, your probability of dying isn’t increased.

The conclusion is that it’s not the stress that’s bad for us. Our belief about stress determines whether it’s bad or not so bad. Our bodies reaction to our stress depends on what we believe about it. Mind-boggling, eh?

In choice theory, Dr. Glasser refers to human behaviour as “total behaviour.” That is, our behaviour has distinct components: acting, thinking, feeling, and our physiological responses. The physiological component is the most difficult for us to control directly.

Glasser has suggested that if we want to change our feelings or physiology, the most effective way is to focus on changing our actions and thoughts. Our feelings and physiology will come along for the ride.

For example, we can choose our actions: to sit down or to run around. To a large degree, we can also choose our thoughts: we can think about hopes and dreams or barriers and challenges.

Our feeling behaviours are more difficult to directly control. And our physiology—our stomach churning or pulse racing—that’s not easy to control at all.

McGonigal’s findings indicate that when we’re under stress but believe that stress is OK, our arteries don’t constrict to the same degree as they would if we see our stress as bad. Our thoughts do, indeed, influence physiology.

We harm ourselves when we view our stress response as negative.

McGonigal also points out the effect of oxytocin, a hormone that’s part of the stress response. She says, “It primes us to do things that strengthen close relationships…. It enhances our empathy… making us more willing to help and support the people we care about.”

So part of our body’s stress response is motivating us to reach out to others and seek support. We could look at it as a gift that our bodies give us when we’re stressed.

If we can learn to perceive our stress responses as helpful rather than harmful, we do less harm to ourselves. Stress is, after all, a natural response that prepares us for challenges. If we can learn to accept that, maybe we can feel less stressed about being stressed.

As Dr. Joel Wade says, “How we think about things matters.” How we think about our stress can make a physical difference in our bodies.

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