12 Stress “Facts” Psychologists Need You to Stop Believing
People have a lot of mistaken assumptions about stress—from how common it is to how dangerous it can be.
How bad could it be?
The word stress gets thrown about in casual conversation every day, but stress can be a serious health problem—and people tend to carry more stress than they realize, especially at work. According to Statistics Canada, work is the leading cause of stress among our Canadian population. The survey revealed that 62 percent of Canadian workers deem work as their main source of stress on a day-to-day basis.
Let’s set the record straight on the following facts about stress.
If you ignore stress, it will go away
It is common for people to try to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach with stress, says Jessica Rohlfing Pryor, PhD, a clinical lecturer in the department of psychology at Northwestern University. This is harmful to your body and well-being, Dr. Pryor says, and it potentially puts you at risk for problems such as heart disease, gastrointestinal conditions, reproductive issues, sleep problems, weight gain, cognitive impairment, and mood disorders. “I often tell my clients that compartmentalizing stress is akin to trying to put water in a cardboard box: It will leak out in one way or another.”
Willpower can overcome stress
You may have heard people say to someone with stress: “Oh, just get over it,” or “Pull yourself together.” But stress is not something you can just “get over,” according to practicing clinical psychologist John Mayer, MD. “We need coping mechanisms and lifestyle changes to be stress-free.” (Here are some tips for managing stress.)
Stress is all in your mind
Another one of the misconceptions about stress is that it only impacts your mental well-being. Stress is closely linked to mental health in two major ways: It can make mental health problems worse, and it can be caused by mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. However, stress can also have an impact on physical health. “I have seen stress be the cause of very unusual ailments that one would not normally associate with stress,” says Dr. Mayer. Sore throats, ringing ears, dizziness, muscle aches, bloating, heart disease, and nervous shakes may all be exacerbated by or linked to stress. Keep in mind, the physical effects of stress can be severe.
You can put off managing stress
Stress can’t wait. “In my practice, I work with a considerable number of high-functioning professionals, and I have now come to expect them to commit to taking care of themselves after the busy season or their next professional deadline,” says Pryor. “The thing is, we cannot make up for stress periods similarly to how we now know we cannot make up for lost sleep. It is important to maintain good self-care practices because of this.”
Stress won’t interfere with your thought process
While stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, it can lead to distorted or paranoid thinking in people who are prone to those mental health issues, says Dr. Mayer. (Once you get these facts about stress straight, make sure you watch out for these signs you’re more stressed than you realize.)
Stress is the same for everybody
Like all mental health issues, there is no “one size fits all.” In fact, quite the opposite is true, says Dr. Mayer. “Stress is idiosyncratic, which is why there are so many varieties of physical manifestation.” Whether you get stressed about your finances, your career, your relationship or having people over for dinner, your stress triggers are unique to you. Everyone responds to stress in their own way, too. Some people’s responses are emotional, others are physical, and others are a combination of the two. (Feeling stressed? Here’s why it might be a good idea to call your mom.)
Stress is a motivator
People often say that stress is a motivator, but this is antiquated thinking, says Dr. Mayer. “Research has shown that the best motivators are internal motivation, not external motivators. Stress as a motivator is temporary, thus ineffective.” It’s important to distinguish between stress and stimulus. Setting goals, figuring out how to overcome obstacles, and pushing yourself to succeed are stimulating, and that isn’t the same as stress. If you know someone who seems to thrive under pressure, consider that they’re succeeding in spite of stress, and not because of it.
(Psst: Here’s how mindfulness can help ward off stress.)
Stress is good for you
While mild stress in certain situations may be beneficial in very particular circumstances, such as “mild performance anxiety” before a speech, presentation, or performance, which can help a person be alert and energized, it’s dangerous to put a positive spin on all types of stress. When your stress has reached a level that it has an adverse effect on your overall health, your job, your family, or your relationships, it is time to seek help. If stress is constant and prolonged, it develops into chronic stress, warns Pryor.
(Do you exercise to relieve stress? Here are the best stress-busting workouts to try.)
Stress is inevitable
Life does come with unavoidable stressors, but we shouldn’t expect to get stressed simply because we are alive. “The key is how we cope with the daily bombardment of stress,” says Dr.Mayer. It is possible to take steps to manage your stress, to make it less likely to overwhelm you. Being aware of your stress triggers is another great stress management tip, as it lets you plan ahead, take all necessary precautions, and put self-care mechanisms in place. (Learn how stress can contribute to body pain and weight gain.)
Stress is a choice
Certain choices you make may lead to stress in your life, but it’s dangerous to label stress as a choice. This can add to stigma surrounding mental health issues. And remember, everybody has different stress triggers and responds to stress differently. It might be easy for one person to tell themselves not to get stressed, while someone else would become stressed regardless of any personal pep talks. If you are stressed, don’t beat yourself up about it—just make the choice to take action and relieve yourself of stress using proven expert-approved methods. (Find out what actually happens to your body when you’re stressed.)
Stress cannot be cured
It’s true that there is no catch-all cure for stress, and chronic stress can take time to subside. “Chronic stress, which is constant and persists over an extended period of time, can be debilitating and overwhelming,” says the American Psychological Association. But even people with chronic stress can manage stressors and may be able to reduce stress through coping mechanisms and making healthy lifestyle choices. Talk therapies, medication, ecotherapy, and various complementary and alternative therapies are possible treatment methods.
(Psst: These are the questions to ask before taking prescription medications.)
Only medication is effective in treating stress
People do take medication for stress relief—and find it effective—but it’s not the only treatment option. In fact, research shows that the best course of treatment for those who need treatment for stress is the combination of therapy and medications, says Dr. Mayer. (Here are some expert tips for finding the best therapist for you.) A therapist may recommend cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps you understand your thought patterns, recognize your trigger points and identify positive actions you can take, or mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and yoga with a particular focus on reducing stress.
Now that you know these common facts about stress that people confuse, learn about the health myths that need to die.