The genius of stress – part 2

The genius of stress – part 2

The other day I sent a text message to a friend with a link and said “I was doing some research online about stress and I found this and thought it might be useful for you”.

His response: “Did you google stress? Didn’t you learn about stress in your psychology doctorate? LOL”

Which made me laugh out loud.

The particular research I was doing about stress was inspired by a TED talk by a fellow Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

And I must admit the first time I watched the talk, about a year ago, my mind was screaming “Why didn’t I learn this at uni???”

The answer is because the research wasn’t around, or at least enough of it, at the time that I was learning about stress.

To re-cap from last week, the old thinking about stress was all about how bad it is for us and how, as psychologists, we can and should help people reduce it. The reason it’s bad is because hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released into our system to bring about the fight or flight response – this is great for short-term stress but not so good for long-term stress.

But if what Kelly was presenting is true, it completely changes our understanding of stress.

In last week’s post I shared with you how the way we see stress can change the impact of stress, both physiologically and psychologically. Basically, when we see our stress response as helpful and safe, we perform better on stressful tasks and our hearts do better under the stress.

Today, I want to share with you another cool thing about the stress response.

It turns out that cortisol and adrenaline aren’t the only hormones being released at times of stress.

Depending on the situation, another hormone – oxytocin – can also be released.

Oxytocin has received a lot of good press and has been affectionately dubbed “the cuddle hormone” because it’s released when we give or receive comforting touch as well as at orgasm. It also makes us the social beings we are and helps us to empathize, solve problems together, and help each other out. It has also been linked to promoting healthy labor (through contractions in the uterus) and milk production in new mums. More recently, it has been linked to conditions such as autism, eating disorders, and diabetes.

If it wasn’t for oxytocin we would be living very different lives.

But back to stress. Evidence of oxytocin and its receptors (the bits on our cells that the hormone binds to) have been found in the cardiovascular system, including the heart.

So far the majority of the research has been done on rats and other non-human animals. But there is a growing number of studies involving humans where the participants are put under stressful conditions and the researchers measure what their hearts and oxytocin levels are doing.

This research is building a strong case for oxytocin’s ability to help our hearts to be protected, as well as heal, from the damage that can be caused by other hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This clever little multi-purpose hormone also appears to be a natural anti-inflammatory.

We have known for a long time that social support helps us deal with negative impacts of stress but we are starting to unravel the biological basis of how this occurs. Helping others, which we know is related to increases in oxytocin, has been associated with greater wellbeing and longevity.

In her TED talk, Kelly speaks of this study that demonstrated that a stressful life event could predict a 30% increased chance of premature death.

But only for people who didn’t help others.

For people who did help out neighbours, family members, friends or relatives, having a stressful life event was not associated with an early death.

The conclusion that Kelly drew from this body of research, and after looking at the research myself I agree, that it appears that our stress response is encouraging us to seek support.

We all know how much better we feel when we can talk to someone we trust about what’s stressing us out and they listen and support us. Or when our dog snuggles up to us after a hard day at the office. Or when someone we love hugs us or holds our hands when we’re struggling.

It seems that our own physiology, is encouraging us to seek support from others, and to change our perspective from ourselves to others, in order to heal our hearts that are hurting under the stress.

This is so exciting to me because it can change the way we think about seeking support. Instead of seeing reaching out to someone as a sign of weakness, we can see it as something our physiology is actually urging us to do for our physical protection. It’s what we are built to do as a species.

At this point, we don’t have the scientific understanding of whether there is a ‘therapeutic dose of oxytocin for cardioprotection’. That is, we don’t know whether there is a particular level of increase in oxytocin that results in a certain amount of healing to the heart, or how to get a specific increase. But the research certainly appears to be heading in that direction.

So here’s a list of things that we know can boost our oxytocin levels (and even if they don’t turn out to be a ‘therapeutic dose for cardioprotection’ they still feel amazing and increase our sense of wellbeing):

  • Have an orgasm. By yourself or with a partner – research shows both are good for your oxytocin levels.
  • Touch and be touched. Not in a creepy way of course but physical affection can work wonders for oxytocin. Take the time to hug the people you love when you say goodbye and hello. If you’re with your loved one make the effort to hold hands or cuddle on the couch.
  • Get a massage. Now you know why they feel so good!
  • Donate money and/or time to a charity that is important to you
  • Pay attention to the feelings of people around you – recognizing signs of distress in others can increase your oxytocin levels
  • Maintain eye contact. This is really important for social connection (and oxytocin of course). Next time someone is talking to you, put down your phone, look at them and show them you’re listening – it’s good for both of you
  • Help other people out. Acts of kindness can be random or planned. But help in the spirit of giving, not to get something in return.
  • And here’s the big one: seek support.

It can be so easy to avoid being honest about what we’re struggling with and asking for help out of fear that we are weak, or that we won’t be accepted. If this is you, you’re not alone. I find it hard too. Almost everybody finds it hard.

But be brave and open up to someone you care about. Someone who can look you in the eye as you speak, someone who will gently touch your arm and let you know they care about you. Someone who will let you feel safe and loved, despite your fear (most stress is probably fear when we drill down enough).

All of your awesome little oxytocin receptors in your heart are willing you to do it.

And you might just be helping the other person’s receptors to do their thing as well.

So in summary of these two blogs, and Kelly’s ted talk that inspired them, the reason I think our stress response might just be genius is because:

  1. The way we think about stress changes our physiology and performance. If we see stress as helpful and safe, then it probably is.
  2. Our stress response encourages us to connect with, and help, others.
  3. When we connect with others we heal and we give them a chance to heal too.


This research has completely changed the way I see stress so leave a comment below if it has helped you as well, or if you have a success story of how approaching stress in these ways has already helped you. And don’t forget to share this post with the people you think it could help.


With wishes for your peace, health and wellbeing,


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