Understanding the Stress in Our Lives
Ask anyone, and the term "stress" likely means something different to each person. Whether we agree or disagree on the definition of what stress is, what causes it, or how to respond to it, we all seem to acknowledge its existence. What's more, it can arise from such seemingly disparate sources as rushing to get to the bank before it closes, the physical discomfort associated with a backache, or witnessing the sheer brutality of war.
It is no coincidence that when we think about stress, the word "workplace" often comes to mind. After all, we are increasingly a society of Superachievers. Indeed, we are so highly achievement – oriented that we can lose all semblance of balance in our lives when our passion for work exceeds our ability to cope with our self-imposed demands, which may be unrealistic.
In keeping with the idea that Americans may have an incomplete notion of stress, this article is not intended to be prescriptive for managing the ill effects of acute or chronic stress. Rather, it emphasizes some of the misconceptions surrounding the topic.
Myth #1: What's stressful for me is stressful for you.
Much like beauty, the experience of stress is in the "eye of the beholder." So what I find stressful might be a cakewalk for you due to your many resilient qualities.
Such varying perceptions of stress have evolved out of our different life's experiences. In addition, our genetic makeup, developmental factors, biology, and other dispositional factors have contributed to our views on stress.
Similarly, when it comes to navigating some potentially stressful issues in our lives, we all have different competencies and abilities, which includes our innate and learned tolerance for any such challenges. Therefore, it's good to know our own unique strengths and weaknesses in order to develop the best strategic plan for coping with stress.
Myth #2: By eating right, getting enough sleep, and taking care of our bodies, we can eliminate stress.
It is true that we can mitigate some of the harmful effects of stress by keeping ourselves physically fit. However, many of us embrace the false notion that if we just "get ourselves into shape" we can conquer stress. The message is clear, and most everyone from healthcare professionals to our own friends and family has unwittingly echoed this sentiment: if we are physically fit we can deal with any obstacles that life throws at you. Consequently, the fundamental causes of stress are overlooked in favor of continuing to overburden and exhaust ourselves in a society that often overvalues competition and productivity.
Myth #3: We need stress to motivate us.
Stress may be a part of the equation, but let's not get carried away; we can still accomplish the majority of our goals without it. Following the presentation of a stressor, the human body begins to gear up to take action. This response promotes alertness while mobilizing the body's energy. Beyond that, we don't "need" to be stressed in order to succeed. What we really need, according to Andrew Bernstein, the author of The Myth of Stress is stimulation and engagement. Goal setting, for example, gives us something to aim for, thereby keeping us engaged. Stress, which is the emotional tumult that is superimposed on top of something we perceive as a challenge or threat is completely unnecessary. To that end, some people actually go to work to challenge and engage themselves, to avoid the stress of a sedentary lifestyle, and really love their jobs.
So, the negative effects of stress are anything but motivating factors. The ill-effects of stress include: decreased mental acuity, lowered creativity, diminished ability to problem-solve, mental exhaustion, and eventually physical burnout. Eventually, this can lead to disease.
Challenging ourselves does not have to be a stressful proposition. As Bernstein cautions, don't be fooled into believing that you're succeeding because of your stress. If you are motivated and doing well, it is most likely in spite of, and not because of the stress.
Myth #4: No major symptoms means no stress.
We might infer that stress is not an issue four us if we don't have high blood pressure, ulcers, or some stress-related illness. However, disregarding the effects of stress due to the absence of discernible medical symptoms represents a rather narrow, if not simplistic view of how stress manifests in the human body. Stress is insidious, especially when it's chronic. The cumulative effects of stress gradually wears down both your mind and body over time. Your body loses its ability to adapt, and can be irreparably damaged in a process that's not measured in months, but years, and even decades. We should be proactive, i.e., managing the smaller signs of stress such as tension headaches, increased irritability, feeling fatigued, etc. Basically, don't put off efforts to reduce stress in your daily life just because you're not suffering at the moment. If someone or something is causing you stress, do something to change it.
Myth #5: Stress has a greater impact on those with more responsibilities.
Remember, stress affects everyone differently. It doesn't matter what your level of responsibility is, for example, within an organization. In fact, if you're someone who happens to enjoy having additional responsibilities, but the restricted nature of your job does not afford you these opportunities, this relatively easy and carefree work-assignment might actually generate more stress, rather than reduce it, in the long run.
Myth #6: It's obvious when someone is experiencing too much stress.
Think of someone who you know that was [or is] depressed, abuses substances, or has been suffering [perhaps silently] with any problem. Basically, nobody else knows - or knew - about his / her troubles, right? In this way, stress is not always obvious either. So if you're expecting to see noticeable changes in someone's mood, appearance, or behavior that are commensurate with an increase in this individual's level of stress, don't count on it. Yet for others, when they are stressed to the max, or even a little, you might notice some tell-tale signs such as their getting red in the face when frazzled or anxious, or having frequent angry outbursts. The take away message here is that some people are great at masking their stress.
Myth #7: Those who work harder and / or more hours are most susceptible to stress.
If that were the case, a lot of people would be in trouble. Many of us work more than a 40 hour week (and hopefully not too much more), but if you truly love what you do, and have a balance of healthy activities in your life, chances are you will handle stress better than those of us who dread going to work.
Myth #8: Stress is everywhere, and there's nothing that can be done about it.
Yes, I'm sure that stress is everywhere, and for some more than others. But we can do something about it. Being more mindful and aware of your own thought process, feelings, and the environment, including any changes you might make, can help. We must be flexible in our approach to our activities, duties, and tasks. At the same time, it is good to have a routine, to plan our days, and to decide what is and isn't important. So by not giving everything equal priority or taking ourselves too seriously, we're already off to a good start.