In 1934, the endocrinologist Hans Selye did an experiment in which he injected ovarian extracts into rats. The rats reacted strongly, and he believed that he had discovered a new sex hormone. But he soon realized that he was wrong. In reality, the rats responded precisely the same way to any injection. The experiment just shows that anything that shocks or causes pain and discomfort can trigger stress.
Interestingly enough, however, Selye observed that the rats adapted to the stressors over time. In fact, stress can actually be positive and spur growth.
A great example is exercise. When you work out a muscle – say, by lifting weights – it causes micro tears in the muscle fibers, triggering a stress response. In effect, the body becomes aware that it’s not strong enough to lift such a weight, and so it transitions into an anabolic stage, building up the muscle to withstand greater stress.
And this doesn’t just apply to muscles. Pushing the brain to new heights can also build up its response to stress. For example, in one study, students who were forced to struggle through complex problems without any help outperformed those who received immediate assistance.
And managing stress is often merely a matter of how you think about it. If you see it as a positive experience, you’ll be much more able to withstand it.
Just take a 2010 study that found that Americans who view stress as “facilitative” have a 43-percent lower chance of dying prematurely.
It could be assumed that the only reason such a group views stress favorably is because they rarely experience it. However, when researchers compared the total number of stressful events for this group with those of people who saw stress negatively, they found that they were nearly identical.
The only other explanation is that the attitudes people hold toward stress can determine how it impacts them and, therefore, the length of their lives.