The last year of living in a pandemic has stretched human coping skills so thin that experts fear many of us may soon snap, leaving people around the world coping with a mental health crisis of catastrophic proportions.
In the United States alone, a recent analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found reports of anxiety or depression climbed from 36% to 42% in the six months between August 2020 and February 2021.
Yet some people — in fact, many people — somehow manage to weather stress just fine. Do those folks experience less pressure? That’s certainly possible, since not everyone has worked in an essential job or lost a job during the pandemic, or worse, lost a family member to the virus.
But it’s also possible they have mastered the art of seeing stress as a normal, acceptable and even positive part of life.
With that view, experts say, comes resilience.
And just like rock, paper, scissors … resilience covers stress.
Viewing stress as harmful can kill
It was 1998, and a random sample of Americans were answering questions about stress for the National Health Interview Survey, an annual household report designed to monitor the health of the nation.
The 1998 survey did something later years didn’t do. It not only asked people how much stress they were under and how well they were coping, it also asked them if they thought that stress had impacted their health.
More than 55% of nearly 29,000 people said they had been under moderate-to-severe stress over the last 12 months. Nearly 34% said stress had affected their health to some degree that year, and about a fourth of those said stress had made their health much worse.
Eight years later, researchers compared those answers to national death data to see who had suffered the greatest impact from stress. As expected, reporting high levels of stress did increase the risk of dying.
But here’s where the study’s results got really interesting — that risk only applied to people who believed the stress they were experiencing was significantly harming their health. In fact, the risk of premature death rose by 43% for people who viewed stress negatively.
What happened to the equally pressured people who didn’t view stress as harmful?
They had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than people reporting very little stress, said psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who discussed the study in her book “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.”
“The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress that was killing people,” McGonigal wrote. “It was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. The researchers estimated that over the eight years they conducted their study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health.”
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