We’ve all heard it time and time again: stress, bad; positive thinking, good. And while studies have shown that stress may be linked to 90% of all illnesses, humans are complex creatures, and it’s not always so cut and dry. In fact, studies have shown that it may not be your stress levels that are impacting your health, but the way you perceive the stress. As a result, reframing how you look at stress could seriously improve your health.
It’s Your Attitude About Stress That Counts
A 2011 study published in Health Psychology looked at the stress levels of 186 million U.S. adults, in addition to their perception of the impacts stress can have on health and mortality outcomes. In the end, researchers found that people who had both high stress levels and a belief that stress had the power to negatively impact their health had a higher risk of premature death overall.
“High amounts of stress and the perception that stress impacts health are each associated with poor health and mental health,” the study reads. “Individuals who perceived that stress affects their health and reported a large amount of stress had an increased risk of premature death.”
The study found that the amount of stress people were experiencing in their lives worked synergistically with the perception that stress affects health to predict an increased risk of premature death.
“Specifically, reporting a lot of stress and perceiving that stress affected one’s health a lot increased the risk of premature death by 43%,” the study reads.
Reframing Stress Leads to Better Health Outcomes
More recently, a 2021 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General looked at the exam scores of college students after they had been reminded of the functional benefits stress can have on performance. The study found that by reframing their stress as a help instead of a hindrance, the students were able to achieve higher test scores, reduce anxiety and do better in school overall.
In other words, if we can begin to view “good stress” as a normal part of working towards our goals and of the human condition, this positive perception will ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy and manifest into our outer experience. Experts suggest that stress is a normal part of the human experience that can help us overcome challenges by initiating energizing hormone responses and delivering oxygen to the brain, and the results of this study suggest that we’ll actually have better outcomes overall if we can remember that.
While science is still unclear on the exact mechanisms underlying the relationships between stress and health outcomes, it’s been confirmed that reframing stress and having a positive attitude can have direct benefits on your health. For example, a study from the University of Kansas found that smiling (whether genuinely or not) can reduce heart rate and blood pressure during stressful events, while other studies have found that positivity can lead to an increased life span, lower rates of depression and greater resistance to illnesses.
Reframing Stress to Help You Adopt a More Positive Attitude
Of course, reframing stress and keeping a positive attitude isn’t always easy or simple. It’s also important to avoid falling into the trap of “toxic positivity,” which is an attitude that denies or dismisses heavy emotions like distress or sadness in yourself or others.
However, there are some tactics you can try to begin adopting a more positive attitude to feel better and potentially improve your health, including:
1. Identify and Reframe Negative Thinking Patterns
In order to create lasting changes in our life, we first need to identify the thoughts and beliefs that are increasing stress levels in the first place. By becoming more aware of our thoughts through practices like meditation and journaling, we can then move forward and make decisions from an empowered place.
2. Practice Cognitive Reframing to Reduce Stress
Once you’ve identified the thought patterns that are causing you grief, try reframing these beliefs to help you adopt a more optimistic perspective. By shifting our perceptions of challenges from problems to potentially helpful life lessons, we can create more space for productive life changes in the future.
3. Move Away From Negative Self-Talk
Notice your internal dialogue: are you speaking to yourself the way you’d speak to a cherished friend, or are you effectively bullying yourself? Try to move away from negative or limiting self-talk, and instead consciously take on a more open and optimistic view of yourself and your abilities.
4. Surround Yourself With Positivity
In many ways, we become the people we spend the most time with and the media we consume most often. So, do you really want to become a true crime documentary? Just kidding — but in all seriousness, experts have suggested that watching true crime or even fictionalized crime shows can take you to dark places mentally. Take stock of the TV shows and movies you’re watching as well as the people you’re hanging out with and adjust as necessary.
5. Practice Gratitude
Hundreds of successful figures throughout history have lauded the positive impacts their daily gratitude practice has had on their career, relationships and personal health. Start small by journaling just one line a day about what you’re feeling thankful for and take note of how this tiny shift in focus makes you feel.
There are countless other ways to practice reframing stress, think more positively and improve your mood. Explore different books (like Think Like a Monk by Jay Shetty or The Power of Positive Thinking: 10 Traits for Maximum Results by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, to name just two of approximately, a zillion), podcasts (try Ten Percent Happier or Michael Singer podcast) and documentaries (check out Happy) to find what works for you.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, always reach out for help from a registered therapist, doctor or psychiatrist.
Books mentioned in this article:
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