We’ve all experienced stress, we all know what it feels like. We recognise the rapid heartbeat, racing thoughts, feeling irritable or overwhelmed, among others - the full list of symptoms on Mind’s website is extensive.
Usually, the feelings of stress subside once the stressful situation has passed - this is known as acute stress. However, some people experience chronic stress, when the feelings don’t go away and begin to cause physical and mental symptoms that impact on quality of life. Long-term excess stress hormones have been found to affect memory, cognition, the immune system, digestion, heart function and sleep, as well as causing anxiety and depression, and making existing mental health conditions worse.
Even though it’s something we’re all pretty familiar with, there are many myths about stress that mean it is still not fully understood or appreciated for the debilitating condition it can become. We’re going to look at some of them here:
Stress is caused by your circumstances
While we may experience situations that make us feel stressed, it is actually our thoughts about that situation that cause the stress, rather than the situation itself. This is because we all find different things stressful – one person’s stress about travelling somewhere new is another person’s adventure.
Stress is part of life, we can’t avoid it
It depends. Some stress is incurred by our own behaviour. For example, stress due to being late for an appointment could be avoided with better planning and time management. However, there are instances of stress that are outwith our control, such as experiencing crime or losing a loved one. In these instances, it is important to know what stress looks like so you can recognise it, have coping mechanisms that can help manage it, and a good support network around you.
I don’t feel stressed, so I’m not stressed
Some people may feel obvious and clear signs of stress. However, some individuals won’t show any outward signs of stress, and may not be aware that what they are feeling is stress. If stress symptoms are not managed, they can move from acute to chronic and begin to severely impact everyday life, so it’s important to learn what’s normal for you so that you can recognise any changes in how you feel and take steps to address them.
Stress is good
There is a line of thinking that suggests some stress is beneficial because it makes us more alert. It is true that short-term acute stress (for example, a deadline for a piece of work) can focus our minds and improve our concentration. However, this very much depends on the individual – for some, this type of stress causes anxiety and can overwhelm to the point of inability to complete the task. And acute stress that works in one scenario may be debilitating in another.
Generally speaking, stress has negative impacts on our wellbeing, and if you are able to succeed in the scenario described above, it’s probably in spite of the stress, not because of it.
A glass of wine will help
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol (or other substances) does nothing to combat stress. It can dull the senses, which may feel like stress relief, but is simply masking the feelings that will remain once the effects of the alcohol have worn off. It’s also the case that we tend to go out for a drink with friends and so feel less stressed – in this case, it is the friends who are helping, not the alcohol. Drinking alcohol doesn’t address the cause of the stress, so any perceived relief is temporary. Indeed, alcohol has its own side effects that themselves cause further stress, so is best avoided as a form of stress relief.
Just breathe through it
It is certainly true that relaxing the mind (also known as mindfulness) can help some people to feel less stressed. But there are two issues with this:
1) it doesn’t work for everyone. Just as everyone experiences stress differently, we all relieve it in different ways too. If deep breathing doesn’t make you feel calmer, try active mindfulness – this is where you do something like go for a walk, but also engage your brain by taking photos or sketching, while paying attention to sights and sounds of nature;
2) simply calming yourself down, while helpful in managing the effects of stress, doesn’t address the cause – which is how we feel about certain things and the worry and anxiety that induces. A longer-term approach may involve thinking differently about challenging situations to try and limit the likelihood of feeling stress in the first place.
We may not be able to avoid all causes of stress, but we can take steps to equip ourselves with tools to manage it. Listen to your mind and body – the more aware we are of how we feel and why, the better we will be at identifying when something isn’t right. And if we understand ourselves better, we’ll know what works for us and what doesn’t, which means we’ll have a clearer idea of how we can manage stressful situations.