Kelly McGonigal: ‘Your biological stress response is telling you to share your story’

Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal believes there’s actually an upside to stress. Her research presents interesting findings not just about stress, but about how storytelling can help us cope with difficult situations.

“Your biological stress response is telling you to share your story, not bottle it up,” McGonigal says in one of her TED talks, which has gotten some attention this week.

In her talk, she cites an eight-year-long study, which found that people who believed stress was bad for their health died prematurely. If we stop believing that stress is the enemy, McGonigal says, we might actually live longer.

When presented with a stressful situation, we may feel our hearts beat quickly or we may breathe faster and break out into a sweat. Often, we interpret these responses as signs that we’re not coping well with pressure, and we become more anxious. But what if we viewed these stress responses as helpful — as our body’s way of energizing us and preparing us to meet our challenge?

When we view stress responses in a positive light, we begin to realize that stress can make us more social, McGonigal says. She reveals that oxytocin — commonly referred to as the “cuddle hormone” — is actually a stress hormone that helps our heart cells regenerate and heal from stress-induced damage. It primes us, she says, to do things that strengthen relationships.

“Your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection. … When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you,” says McGonigal, who is twin sisters with gaming researcher Jane McGonigal. “When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you create resilience.”

McGonigal’s research is especially interesting in light of recent media projects highlighting people’s ability to bounce back after difficult times. At ivoh, we’ve become increasingly interested in what we’re calling Restorative Narratives — stories that show how communities and individuals are learning to heal after times of disruption. These narratives reveal hard truths but focus on recovery and resilience.

There’s also the Guardian’s “Cities” project, which looks at how resilience plays out in various cities — and the new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research fellowship aimed at “producing ‘research-based’ enterprise journalism on resilience in all its forms.”

McGonigal’s research suggests human connections are an important component of people’s ability to overcome stress and be resilient. By making genuine connections with people in stressful situations and encouraging them to share their stories, media makers could potentially play an important role in their recovery.

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