Don't Sweat the Stress! (And How Not To!)
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
By Dr. Sarah Haas*
What if you trusted yourself and your body's physical responses to situations? What if your physical manifestations of stress--whether it be increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweaty palms, racing thoughts--was actually encouraging you and telling you "You can do this" rather than "ABORT MISSION" in a given situation? What if you were more resilient than you often give yourself credit for?
"I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience..." (Dr. Kelly McGonigal via TED talk).
Have you ever had someone tell you that they feel being placed under stress helps them perform better at their job, academically, and socially? If you are someone who feels your stress freezes you and negatively impacts your ability to do those very same things, you may have scoffed at this person and feel like they do not understand the reality of their stress.
What if I told you that the person who feels stress helps them may be healthier and may live longer than someone who feels stress debilitates them, solely because of their mindset? In other words, What if your thoughts about stress has a higher negative impact on your health than the actual stress itself?
We have all been told stress is bad, which is really difficult to think about given that stress can be an everyday occurrence. Worrying about what you said to your colleague last week, leaving the house late for an appointment, car trouble, running into traffic jams, needing to pick up your child from school because they are sick on a day you have a work meeting, receiving negative job performance feedback, feeling the imposter syndrome, experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out), wondering if you'll manage to get everything done at work today, your children screaming while you are trying to get them to bed, no one eating the meal you just made, and so on can all cause stress. Basically, any unexpected, negative event that interferes with your ability to do what you need to do, or worrying about past or future events, can lead to stress.
If you are like some folks I know, as soon as you start feeling stress then immediate dread and guilt start taking over. As soon as your heart rate increases, you may be thinking how bad this is for your overall health and/or how you can't believe this is happening again. You may even be thinking, "Stress is SO BAD for me," and provide yourself a little (not-so-peppy) pep talk that looks something like this: "Stop being stressed out!" or "You're being ridiculous!" These types of thoughts can break you down and make you feel not-good-enough to make an appropriate decision or feel like you are less than other people. All of these comments suggest that you have an association with stress being a bad, very negative feeling. That is, you may have an automatic association between stress and badness which may transpire into poor physical health and poor mental health.
What if I told you that how we think about stress is the thing causing the most harm, not the actual stressor itself? In this way, telling yourself that "stress is bad", or tell yourself to "stop" is really unhelpful....in a BIG way.
"...the harmful effects of stress on your health are not inevitable. How you think and how you act can transform your experience of stress" (Dr. Kelly McGonigal via TED talk).
So what I learned from Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist, is that we need to re-think how we automatically view stress. You may not only be thinking, "Yeah right; how?" but this sentiment may conjure up some examples of being told "Don't worry!" or "You'll get through this!" from well meaning friends and family. But you and I both know these types of statements doesn't really help (actually, this is a real thing called "toxic positivity". Look it up; it'll validate your feelings!).
I can understand initial skepticism, but hear me (and Dr. McGonigal) out! We know that our minds and bodies are inextricably linked together. We've heard things like, "Mind over matter!", and anecdotal stories about people overcoming physical illnesses like cancer because of their mindset. Anxiety and stress is not just a "mind" thing; there are real physical manifestations that result from our thoughts and ultimately from our mental health, which is why the importance of a healthy lifestyle (e.g., eating, sleeping, playing) is incorporated in my dissemination and treatment of mental health (see here).
"My goal as a health psychologist has changed. I no longer want to get rid of your stress. I want to make you better at stress." (Dr. Kelly McGonigal via TED talk).
So you may be asking, then, how exactly can we re-think the way stress treats us? Dr. McGonigal essentially pitches it this way: What if we could find a "silver-lining" in how anxiety or stress manifests in our bodies that doesn't involve a simple, yet totally ineffective "get over it"?
If we were to break down what stress looks and feels like, we often see that it isn't a particular stressor that causes stress, but it is our interpretation of the stressor that causes stress. For example, two people can look up at the same rollercoaster and one person think, "I cannot wait to go on that!", while the other person thinks, "That looks like a death trap". Although both people in this scenario may experience a higher heart rate (i.e., physical manifestation) from looking at the rollercoaster (i.e., potential stressor), it is not the rollercoaster itself that causes stress, but rather it is the resulting thoughts about the rollercoaster. We can tell this is true because the rollercoaster causes two different emotions to result--excitement in the first person and fear in the second person--with it being presented to both people in the same exact manner.
OK, so the first person is interpreting their heart rate increase as a good thing while the second person is interpreting their heart rate as a bad thing. Is this all I need to do?
Well, yeah! This is what Dr. McGonigal suggests via her TED talk entitled, "How to Make Stress Your Friend".
She suggests that if we can interpret the physical signs of stress as a rush of adrenalin rather than a source of doom, we may see beneficial effects on our mental health. This re-interpretation of stress not only can help improve your physical well-being, but it may also help you build self-confidence.
"You're saying that you can trust yourself to handle life's challenges and you're remembering that you don't have to face them alone" (Dr. Kelly McGonigal via TED talk).
What if we viewed stressful situations as a way to practice our response to stress in a healthy manner, rather than avoiding such situations? What if we felt like we could handle stress effectively, rather than letting it control what we do and don't do? What if stress empowered us instead of enslaving us?
"When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience" (Dr. Kelly McGonigal via TED talk).
If this concept blows your mind as it does for me, I strongly encourage you to view Dr. Kelly McGonigal's 15-minute TED talk here. Her talk goes more in-depth about the research behind this idea, and medical explanations of how viewing stress as an adaptive behavior does not negatively impact physical health.
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