Mental Health Experts Reveal What Most People Get Wrong About Stress

Featured on Well + Good. Author: Emily Laurence

There’s typically only one way we talk about stress: It’s bad. When the focus isn’t on how to prevent it, it’s on all the terrible ways it can ruin your life. Stress can get in the way of good sleep, cause digestive problems, and make you feel depressed.

However, the whole stress-is-bad mentality is a bit too simplistic and not entirely accurate of the role (good and bad) that stress plays in our lives. Need proof? Here, mental health exerts share the six most common stress myths they hear on a regular basis—including, yes, that stress is bad.

Myth 1: Stress is totally avoidable

If your goal is to live a stress-free life, well, it’s proooobably not going to happen unless you somehow live under a rock without internet access. “Many people think that they can or should try to avoid stress. First and foremost, it is impossible to avoid stress—and not even something to strive for,” says Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, host of Inner Space podcast, and president of Give an Hour. The goal, Dr. Dahlen says, shouldn’t be to avoid stress. Instead, it should be to recognize when we’re experiencing it and manage it in healthy ways.

Myth 2: Stress is always a bad thing

Stress has a worse reputation than Tati Westbrook right now—but that’s not quite fair, says chief psychologist and associate profession at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Simon Rego, Psy.D. “Stress can be helpful, under the right circumstances and at the right level,” he says, because in those situations, it can motivate people to action or change. He also adds that it’s not just a response to negative life events. “You can feel stress after positive life events too, such as a job promotion, wedding, or birth of a child,” he says. Feeling stressed is by no means a sign that your life is a mess or going poorly. The key, again, is managing the stress.

Myth 3: Stress equals unhappiness

Just like how stress isn’t necessarily a symptom of something going wrong, it also doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to totally bum you out either. “The biggest myth about stress is that it is always bad or prevents us from being happy,” 21 Ways To A Happier Depression author Seth Swirsky says. “In fact, if we manage the things that ‘stress us out’ —instead of stress managing us—then, it greatly reduces the most negative aspect of stress, which is tension or anxiety.” His pro tip: make a to-do list of everything coming up in the next week that’s causing you to feel stressed. Then, once it’s completed, cross it out. “This gives a sense of accomplishment and control as opposed to feelings of anxiety and unease,” he says. And that’s definitely a happy feeling!

Myth 4: Stress is uncontrollable

“What people seem to get wrong about stress is how much of it is out of their control,” Columbia University-based psychiatrist and Well+Good Wellness Council member Drew Ramsey, MD says. He adds that therapy can help people recognize what they can and can’t control, and teach them how to act accordingly.

Clinical psychologist Lindsay Tulchin, Ph.D adds that another way to control stress is to change your perspective. “Much ‘stress’ can be attributed to our own unhelpful interpretations of situations,” she says. “By attempting to view a situation from a different, more rational perspective, we can reduce stress and focus our attention to problem solving.” A couple helpful mantras she recommends: I’ve been able to cope with many things on my plate before, they all end up getting done, or This is just uncomfortable and temporary. “Then you are able to use your energy to problem solve and focus on time management strategies,” she says.

Myth 5: Stress is the best motivator

If there’s any positives ever talked about stress, it’s that stress can be motivating to get sh*t done. According to Thea Gallagher, Psy.D., this can be true, but you actually don’t need stress to be motivated. “There is some truth to the fact that a little bit of stress can motivate us, but too much is definitely problematic and tends to do the opposite of helping us accomplish things,” she says. That’s why often when people feel overwhelmed by something, they actually end up putting off doing it. “At the core of most procrastination, there is anxiety and avoidance,” Dr. Gallagher says. Her advice: break the task that’s stressing you out down into smaller, manageable parts. “If you think you need stress to be motivated, test out that theory by trying not to engage with your worry, and see if you are still motivated,” she says.

Myth 6: Stress is always bad for the body

While it’s true that when stress isn’t managed well it can affect the body negatively, clinical psychologist Janina Scarlet, Ph.D. says stress can actually play a positive role, too. “In many ways, stress is our greatest superpower,” she says. “It activates the fight-or-flight systems of our body making us move and think faster, making us stronger, and more prepared. Rather than fighting off stress, we can learn to see it as our strength, our body’s own energy source, set to help us in our greatest time of need.” In moderation, of course!

One way to manage stress: joining Well+Good’s Mental Wellness Challenge. And this is exactly what 2,700 Well+Good readers have to say about stress.


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