actor-confidence-stress.jpgLike dark clouds on a sunny day, stress has a way of creeping up on a regular basis for most of us. Whether we experience mild, moderate, or high levels on any given day, many people view it as an unwelcome but necessary condition. Certainly, the write ups on the subject have concluded that it is harmful for our health, being able to cause unhealthy biological responses from the common cold to disease, and even death. An actor may experience stress when auditioning before a skeptical-appearing production team during a callback, or it might strike as jitters before performing on stage or on set. Stress can also be a culprit for actors in the course of a hectic daily routine juggling auditions, jobs, social obligations, classes, traffic, work outs as well as a plethora of other challenges with deadlines. So is there some secret formula to improving how one handles it?

Growing research indicates the answer is yes; a simple change in how one regards stress can have significant impact on one’s confidence, health, and lifespan .

Stanford University health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, is a leader in the growing field of  “science help,” and has been researching the “upside” of stress. She changed her view about stress after an eight-year study asking 30,000 U.S. participants two questions: 1) How much stress did you experience in the last year? and 2) Do you believe stress is harmful for your health? The researchers then looked at public death records to see how many of the participants died. While the data revealed that people who experienced the highest levels of stress indeed had a 43% increased chance in dying, that statistic only held true for the people who believed that stress is harmful to one’s health. On the other hand, participants who experienced the highest levels of stress but who did not associate it with bad health experienced the lowest chances of death–even less than the people who faced relatively little stress. Thus, the researchers estimated that during the eight-year span of the study, 182,000 people likely died of believing that stress is bad for them–making it the fifteenth top causes of death in the U.S..

How to Make Stress Your Friend 

Researchers then sought to discover what happens when people change their belief about stress from seeing it as a weakness to viewing it as empowering. Participants in a Harvard social-stress test were given a highly stressful challenge, but beforehand were taught to regard their bodies’ response to stress as a positive. That is, instead of interpreting a pounding heart or heavy breathing as signs of not coping well under pressure, to view these responses as their bodies getting energized to meet a challenge, prepare them for action, and to get more oxygen to the brain to empower their performance. The results of the study revealed not only that this shift in perception promoted confidence, but that the participants’ blood vessels actually remained relaxed–as opposed to the typical stress response of constricting blood vessels associated with cardiovascular disease. Indeed, relaxed blood vessels are what happens to people when they experience joy and courage!

Still, other studies have shown people who make efforts to help others, even if they experience high levels of stress, enjoy a bounty of physical and social benefits. Just as adrenaline is released under stressful situations to give the fight-or-flight response, the stress-releasing “cuddle” hormone called oxytocin motivates people to seek support, tell others how they feel instead of withdrawing; it increases empathy, resilience and courage; it makes people more likely to help others, serves as a natural inflammatory as well as helps heart cells regenerate. Overall, how you think about stress and how you act is what makes all the difference.

You can watch Kelly McGonigal’s Ted Talk here, and  be inspired to reassess how you regard the stress in your life. Here’s to you feeling all the joy, courage, confidence, and empathy as you can as you follow your Thespian heart!