“I am presently experiencing life at a rate of several WTFs an hour." - Unknown
You’ll never believe the number one way you might be mishandling stress. Skipping exercise? Eating sugar? Nope. According to Health Psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, the most dangerous mishandling of stress is having a negative attitude about stress.
In her Ted Talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend, she presents results of a study looking at patient's physiological response to stress, measured against their attitudes about stress generally. Those that believed that their body’s stress response was an adaptive and useful reaction and agreed with the statement, “This is my body helping me rise to this challenge,” experienced a healthier body response to stress.
Those who thought stress is bad had their heart rate go up and blood vessels constrict. Those who thought stress is good had their heart rate go up, but their blood vessels stayed open, not constricted.
Her conclusion? “Change your mind about stress and change your body’s response.”
Some might argue that this only applies to our experiences with Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress. And while you can spin acute stress positive, the most dangerous stress is the chronic. Basically too much of a good or natural thing. The chemicals released in a flood during acute stress get minimized, but keep coming at low and constant levels in chronic stress. And this is the “stress” that we have rightly been told is eroding our health.
How are we making this stress worse in our everyday lives? Here are four very clear Don’ts given to us by science about how not to manage chronic stress.
Stop Self Medicating:
Taking the edge off with a six pack is a bad idea. While it may work in the short term, studies have shown that stressed people are vulnerable to addiction, which makes sense when you consider it. Opening yourself up to a cycle of relief and crash -- only to then face the stress again in a weakened state encourages continued and potentially increasing self medication. Whether it’s drugs or food easing the tension, using anything addictive is just a bad move.
No More Mulling it Over and over and over:
Call it brooding, dwelling or ruminating, the result is the same. No result. Steeping in thoughts about the stressful and negative situation does not help reach resolution as many hope. According to Psychologist Guy Winch, in his article The Seven Hidden Danger of Brooding and Ruminating: “Ruminating is considered a maladaptive form of self-reflection because it offers few new insights and it only intensifies the emotional and psychological distress we already feel.” So stop spinning your wheels. It’s not helping you move on. Speaking of moving...
You Can’t Skip Exercise:
Another big mistake is cutting out exercise when you’re stressed and busy. If you’re under a deadline, for example, it makes sense to skip the noon day walk to plow through the powerpoint creation. Or does it? The science shows that exercise not only reduces stress, but also makes us more productive. So resist the urge to skip moving, even if it takes you temporarily off a stressful project.
Don’t Make Big Decisions:
Times of stress often call for decision making, but experts warn that broad brush stroke, life-changing decisions are best delayed. It may be tempting to make sweeping change in times of stress as a large shift may offer relief. The problem is, scientists have found, “Competence in judgment is always compromised under stress.” Not meaning you’re not competent to do the work involved under stressful situations, but you are suffering from impaired judgement. So, if making a big life change is tempting when stressed, resist the urge and delay the decision.
Stress is inevitable, for all of us, but life’s winners learn to manage it and see it as a friend and not foe. For more on ideal ways to manage stress, we recommend this article from PsychCentral, 10 Practical Ways to Handle Stress. And remember, humor is often the best medicine. Try not to stress about stress before there’s even stress to stress about.