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How Stress Makes Us Healthier and Happier

It might be time to rethink how you make sense of the stress you feel.

We all know that stress kills.  But what if we are all wrong?  What if stress is not killing us, but carrying us? 

In January 2007, my 56-year old father barely survived a massive heart attack.  That spring, my wife and I moved away from a cozy beachside apartment in San Diego and into a mortgaged house in Minneapolis.  Our first child was born in May of that year—a beautiful baby boy who slept an average of 37 minutes per night.  Days later, my wife began suffering from post-partum depression, and I received big news that Simon & Schuster wanted me to write my first book—to be completed in six months.  

Since then, I have told people all over the world about the year in which stress and it's outdated fight-or-flight response nearly killed my father; almost destroyed my marriage; and clouded my judgment enough to spur on the idiotic purchase of a 31-foot motor-home—a bad decision on par with Neville Chamberlain’s choice to appease the Nazis and Eve’s decision to nibble on that apple in the Garden of Eden. 

But that is the old story of stress.  Recently, scientists have begun telling a fascinating new tale. 

It turns out that stress is much more than an evolutionary hangover still giving us headaches long after our species traded in the danger of the savanna for the safety of the suburb.  

A few years ago,  researchers at the University of Wisconsin  tracked 30,000 adults for eight years.  They recorded how much stress each person experienced and whether or not each person believed stress was helpful or harmful.  Then they scoured public death records to see who kicked the bucket.  As expected, most of the people who experienced a lot of stress were 43% more likely to die prematurely than those who hadn't.

But here's the crazy part.  The people least likely to die were people who experienced a lot of stress, but also believed that stress was a perfectly normal part of a healthy life.  

Let that sink in for a moment. 

If you believe stress will kill you, it will.  But if you believe stress will carry you, then it will do that instead.  

In her fascinating book  The Upside of Stress , Kelly McGonigal explains how humans have at least three other stress responses that are every bit as natural and instinctive as fight-or-flight.  These responses paint a very different picture of what is going on when our hearts beat faster, our palms sweat, and our pupils dilate.   

In my story of 2007, the  Change-and-Grow  stress response gave me the motivation to restructure my childish habits and learn from my mistakes.  The  Excite-and-Delight response gave my sleep-deprived, new-parent brain the surges of energy it needed to achieve a difficult, but rewarding lifelong dream of writing a book.  The  Tend-and-Befriend response gave me the courage and compassion necessary to support both my infant son and my strong-but-struggling wife, even though she suddenly and inexplicably seemed to hate everything I said or did.

Stress was the hero that helped an immature and self-absorbed 28-year old kid with big dreams, but little follow-through transform into something more closely resembling a responsible and compassionate adult.  Stress wasn't breaking me down.  Stress was lifting me up.

And maybe that's why stress remains a universal human experience. It helps us excel at important work. It helps us endure unavoidable challenges. It helps us empathize with people in need. It helps us exit toxic situations. 

Instead of automatically trying to reduce or run away from our stress, maybe we should start asking ourselves what stress is trying to help us accomplish?   We might discover that something magical and meaningful is happening—something we won't want to miss. Maybe stress is trying to carry us over an important obstacle; through a hard time; out of harm’s way; toward a more successful career; or into a more meaningful life. 

Nick Tasler is a best-selling author and highly sought-after speaker who has helped inspire change in teams and leaders at many of the world's most admired organizations ranging from General Electric, Microsoft, Wells Fargo, the Hospital Corporation of America, and the Royal Bank of Canada to Yale University, the Wharton School, University of Notre Dame and many more. His latest book is Domino: The Simplest Way to Inspire Change