If we are to be able to reduce, manage and prevent stress we need to understand what it is. The problem with the word ‘stress’ is that it’s too vague, most of us cannot get a grip on it. For example, we use the word ‘stress’ to describe the stressor, the stress response and the signs and symptoms of stress. This is why misconceptions about stress and myths about stress can be very confusing.
Misconceptions about stress
To get some clarity on stress myths and misconceptions about stress, we first need to understand that what most of us call ‘stress’ is actually our stress response. Our stress response is the automatic unconscious activation of our biological, physiological and psychological stress responses, every time we feel we have been physically, emotionally or psychologically threatened on any level.
Without this knowledge, every time we go online to learn something about stress, we’ll be overwhelmed by the plethora of ‘stress myths’, ‘myths about stress’, ‘misconceptions about stress’ and ‘stress management myths’ etc, that never explain that what we should be trying to reduce, manage and prevent, is our stress response.
The following will help with busting some of the online myths about stress and give an idea of which misconceptions about stress have a basis and which do not.
Stress Myth 1: Stress is the same for everybody
Here the word ‘stress’ describes the stressor.
This stress myth is not correct. Stressors are not the same for everybody and not experienced the same way by everybody. There are stressors that affect all of us, but our response to these stressors will not be the same.
- We all respond differently to stressors. For example; some people get stressed out at the very thought of conflict, while others enjoy it. Some people thrive on stress, while other’s are destroyed by stress.
- What is stressful for you may not be stressful for your friend or colleague and vice versa.
- Our stress response and our stressors are subjective, different for everybody.
- How we cope with our stressors depends a lot on our upbringing, our norms, education, experiences, coping abilities and personality.
This is why misconceptions about stress and some myths about stress can do more harm than good; they infer we should be the same as everyone else when it comes to stressors and our stress response; this is just not possible.
Stress Myth 2: Stress is always bad for you
Here the word ‘stress’ describes the stress response.
Again, this stress myth is not correct. There are two kinds of stress;
- Eustress; positive stressors, triggers a positive stress response which drives and motivates us to achieve. We need eustress when we are faced with challenges in our lives. Examples of eustress can be; the deadline we have to achieve, a presentation we have to give or even a promotion we decide to go after (acute stress response).
- Then, there’s what we call ‘Stress’; negative stressors, which trigger a negative stress response. This can be the unrelenting re-occurring negative thoughts keeping us from getting a good night’s sleep, which damages our physical and psychological health and wellbeing (chronic stress response).
- Knowing the signs and symptoms of our stress response and managing these signs and symptoms will keep us productive and healthy. It’s when we mismanage and ignore our (negative) stress response, that our stress response is bad for us, causing us to become dysfunctional and ill.
- Our response to our stressors can be negative or positive; our state of mind when confronted with stressors dictate our stress response. So, remember, only we decide what’s stressful for us, no one else.
The secret is knowledge and balance. Knowledge of stressors and stress response and how we can balance them. Most ‘stress myths’, ‘misconceptions about stress’ and myths about stress will not make this clear.
Stress Myth 3: Stress is everywhere, so you can’t do anything about it
This stress myth is a tricky one; it seems to refer to the stressors in our lives and not to our stress response.
Again, what we experience as stress is our stress response; our physiological, biological, psychological and behavioural response to a stressor. So, no, this is not everywhere. This is our unconscious automatic response to what we perceive is a threat to us (the stressor). However, the stressors that trigger our stress response can be anywhere, anything or anybody; but not everywhere and we can do a lot about them.
- We can plan our lives to avoid or prevent stressors.
- We can manage our stressors better by confronting them and resolving them as soon as possible.
- We can make sure we de-stress daily so we lower our stress hormones levels and not let our stressors or our stress responses overwhelm us.
- We can recognise misconceptions about stress, know that stress management myths can be confusing, learn coping strategies, set priorities and focus on good healthy relationships.
- We decide what is stressful for us and what is not. If we decide a stressor is stressful we trigger our stress response. To avoid being overwhelmed we can simply decide that the event, situation or person is not stressful because we can cope.
We can understand that it’s when we mismanage our stress response, we get overwhelmed by our stressors and perceive that stress is everywhere. When things get this bad, we may need stress education or maybe even a stress counsellor to help us find our way through our stressors, put the brakes on our stress responses and balance our stress hormone levels, which are the culprits making us think that stress is everywhere.
Stress Myth 4: The most popular techniques for reducing stress are the best ones
Here the word ‘stress’ refers to our stress response.
This stress myth is not true. As I already mentioned, when it comes to stress we are all different, so it stands to reason that when it comes to techniques for reducing stress, we are all different; one size does not fit all. Why would ‘the best ones’ fit all, and who decides what the ‘best ones’ are?
- There are no universally effective stress reduction techniques, no matter what anyone says or what we may read on the internet or in magazines.
- We can choose to use some well-known stress relief techniques such as; mindfulness, meditation, yoga, exercise, being creative, listening to music, etc. But who’s to say these are best for you? You just might be someone who dislikes all these approaches.
- The trick is to choose stress-reducing techniques you enjoy; techniques that work every time, that suit your personality and lifestyle.
- If this is not possible, develop your own stress relief techniques with the help of a stress counsellor. Sometimes just tweaking your daily routine, or taking a different approach to work. work-styles and home life can take a lot of stressors out of your day, thus reducing your stress response and lowering your stress levels.
Some ‘every day’ techniques for reducing stress response:
- Talking through problems with trusted loved ones, friends or colleagues.
- Good communication in all your relationships.
- A healthy diet.
- Adjusting your lifestyle to feel better.
- Being aware of your stressors and how you are responding to them.
- Do regular exercise.
- Relax with friends and loved ones.
- Walking in nature.
It’s important to keep all this in mind when googling ‘stress management myths, misconceptions about stress and other websites giving advise on myths about stress.
Stress Myth 5: No symptoms, no stress
This stress myth refers to the symptoms of our stress response.
This stress myth is also not true. This misconception about stress can be dangerous; the absence of symptoms does not mean an absence of stress response. It’s all about awareness and being honest enough to assess our own behaviour.
- There are many misconceptions about stress that are deceptive and some myths about stress that are too easy to accept. For example, if we’re constantly irritable but convinced we have no symptoms of stress, we are in denial. Irritability is a symptom of stress. The same goes for overeating or not eating a healthy diet; not sleeping properly etc. A lot of what we think are ‘normal behaviours’ are actually symptoms of stress.
- Also, camouflaging symptoms with medication, alcohol, drugs, food or anything else, may prevent us from picking up our physical and psychological signs and symptoms of stress.
- It’s a well-documented fact that most of our stress behaviours are designed to escape from, or camouflage, the stress we are experiencing. These stress behaviours are themselves signs and symptoms of stress which we generally tend to ignore; for example comfort eating, smoking a lot, consuming too much alcohol, substance abuse and more.
- Another good area to examine when assessing levels of stress response is the state of our relationships. Are some relationships difficult? Are there conflicts in these relationships? An evaluation of our behaviours and relationships will give us a good indication of how stressed we are.
- We all at some point in time experience physical, psychological and behavioural signs and symptoms of our stress response; even though we may not realise these are signs and symptoms of our stress response. These responses will not just go away without resolving the stressors causing these responses; this is what it’s very important we’re honest with ourselves when assessing our signs and symptoms of our stress response.
Ignoring the signs and symptoms of stress response will only increase our stress response; switching it from acute to chronic stress response. Unresolved, long-term chronic stress responses will eventually lead to burnout. So, don’t ignore any signs and symptoms of your stress response and try to resolve your stressors as quickly as possible.
Stress Myth 6: Only major symptoms of stress should be taken seriously
This stress myth refers to symptoms of the stress response.
Again, not true. This stress myth assumes we can ignore the ‘minor’ symptoms of our stress response such as headaches, muscle tension or stomach acid, etc. If we do, we will be sorry.
- The minor symptoms of our stress response are the early warning system, reminding us that we need to do a better job of managing our stress response. A good example of this is burnout; before the body and minds shut down in burnout, they send out constant signs and symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, depression mood swings and more. If these signs and symptoms are ignored for long periods, our brain automatically switches from an acute short-term stress response to a chronic long-term stress response pumping several different stress hormones; including steroid stress hormones, through our bloodstream and changing our biology, physiology psychology and behaviour. If this long-term chronic stress response is ignored the body will eventually shut down, after which the mind will shut down. We call this shut down, burnout.
- If we wait until we start feeling the “major” symptoms of our stress response, such as; high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, burnout and more, it’ll be too late.
- The early warning ‘minor’ signs of stress response should never be ignored; once we are in stress response we have activated our automatic, unconscious fight or flight response and this will not deactivate until we resolve the chronic stressors causing it.
- There are no such things as ‘minor’ symptoms of the stress response; there are only symptoms of the stress response, and all symptoms should be taken seriously.
- The minor symptoms of stress response lead to major symptoms of the stress response; the acute stress response leads to the chronic stress response; just like the match lights the candle. The candle will burn until we resolve the stressor that lit the match.
Taking the time to enjoy life more; spending time with family and friend no matter how much pressure we are under, can help us deal with the early ‘minor’ warning signs and symptoms of our stress response and prevent the development of major signs and symptoms of the stress response.
Its good to remember that dealing with the minor symptoms of stress response will be far less costly; physically, mentally and financially, than dealing with the major signs and symptoms of the stress response.
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Photos were taken in the Lake District UK and Tenerife