Everyone lives with varying degrees of stress. Whether you get worked up about your career, love life, finances or family dynamics, you’re no doubt familiar with physical and emotional changes caused by stressful experiences. However, there are many misleading claims about stress, some of which may even be undermining your health. Here are the facts behind the eight most common myths.
1. Stress is great for motivation
People may sometimes reassure you that heightened stress levels are good for you, pushing you to achieve your full potential and succeed against the odds. However, expert Andrew Bernstein (author of “The Myth of Stress”) cautions that it is actually being challenged and stimulated that motivates you to triumph over adversity. On the contrary, stress adds extra negative emotions to the mix, and it’s plausible that your successes are in spite of your stress rather than because of it.
2. Stress should always be avoided
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find the myth that stress is always bad for you, and that you’ll only be truly happy or fulfilled if you can eliminate all sources of stress from your life. However, it’s next to impossible to rid yourself of stress, and running from prospective sources of it could leave you feeling disappointed by missed opportunities. Living in fear of stress not only constrains your freedom but may also cause additional symptoms of anxiety. Since you’re inevitably going to experience some stress, the trick is to learn how to recognize and manage it in healthy ways.
3. Learning physical relaxation skills is sufficient
If you want to improve your ability to cope with stress, it certainly helps to practice activities like meditation and mindfulness, and it’s great to keep up with favorite hobbies that relax your body. However, this approach isn’t enough for most people, as it doesn’t actually tackle the major beliefs, assumptions and fears influencing your response to stress. Taking a critical look at how you think about stress (e.g. by keeping a regular journal) can give you valuable new insights. Meanwhile, therapy or self-help guides can teach you how to challenge these underlying thoughts and replace them with more effective beliefs.
4. There is just one bodily response to stress
The misconception that stress always manifests in a certain way can stop you from accurately identifying major stresses in your life. For example, if you believe that all stressed people suffer from muscle tension and palpitations then you might gloss over your mild depression and inability to concentrate instead of realizing that you’re incredibly stressed. Think about times when you were obviously stressed, and try to identify the unique features of your response (instead of assuming it will take a certain shape). In the future, use this information to enhance your self-awareness, helping you to acknowledge when you need to practice increased levels of self care.
5. Alcohol is a good antidote to stress
It’s common to reach for a bottle of rich red wine or pour a glass of whiskey after a rough day at work, thinking that the alcohol will help you to relax and let your stress melt away. However, studies on the body’s response to booze show that it prompts greater production of cortisol—one of the key stress hormones. This means you might end up feeling even more anxious and melancholy after hitting the bottle.
6. Only negative events can lead to stress
If you find yourself feeling anxious about an exciting new promotion or tearing your hair out over the process of wedding planning, you’re not alone. Anything that changes your daily routine and sparks a strong emotional response can cause stress, meaning that positive life events be just as difficult to adjust to as negative developments. Don’t ignore your body’s signals, no matter how happy you think you should be.
7. You don’t need help for stress unless your symptoms are extreme
Some people assume that tension headaches, acid reflux and fatigue are inevitable consequences of everyday stress and that there’s no need to seek expert help unless those symptoms become extreme. In truth, chronic levels of stress are linked to an increased likelihood of all major causes of death, especially cardiovascular disease and cancer. In addition, subtle physical changes in response to stress can be viewed as helpful warning signs. If you tackle the underlying stress now, you may escape the more serious consequences further down the road.
8. Stress is the main cause of stomach ulcers
Finally, in spite of the many ways in which stress can reduce physical health, it turns out that stress does not cause the majority of stomach ulcers. As mentioned above, increased stress levels can certainly boost stomach acid levels and cause abdominal discomfort. However, most stomach ulcers are caused by a common type of inflammation-causing bacteria called H. Pylori. If you have symptoms of an ulcer, your doctor can perform a simple test to identify a bacterial cause before providing antibiotics.