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Scratching the Surface of Stress

Scratching the Surface of Stress

Stress. We all experience it. We have all lent a listening ear to others experiencing it. We live in an age where everyone seems stressed much of the time. And yet, what is stress, really? How do you manage your own stress? How do you help your stressed clients?

With April being Stress Awareness Month, I thought I would tackle this nebulous, and yet ubiquitous, topic and see what others had to say. 

How it started

Hans Selye gave us the first definition of the term “stress.” In 1976, he noted stress is “associated with a great variety of dissimilar problems, such as surgical trauma, burns, emotional arousal, mental or physical effort, fatigue, pain, fear, the need for concentration, the humiliation of frustration, the loss of blood, intoxication with drugs or environmental pollutants, or even with the kind of unexpected success that requires an individual to reformulate his lifestyle. Stress is present in the businessman under constant pressure; in the athlete straining to win a race; in the air traffic controller who bears continuous responsibility for hundreds of lives; in the husband helpless watching his wife’s slow, painful death from cancer; in a race horse, its jockey, and the spectator who bets on them.” 

According to Selye, stress is highly non-specific and triggered by an endless number of circumstances. It is no wonder a Google search of “reducing stress” leads to over 521 million results, most with suggestions such as yoga, meditating, breathing, connecting with others, and journaling. These are great ways to reduce physiological arousal and increase feelings of well-being, but what if your stress is related to having a work deadline approaching and not being prepared? Or from Selye’s definition, what if your stress is that of watching a beloved partner slowly die? Are breathing and journaling really the answer? 

In his article “Stress,” Bruce Charlton states: “It is my thesis that stress is a word without real value. Worse, the concept of stress is a pseudo-explanation which provides a blind alley for rational thought.” 

Charlton makes a good point. With a work deadline, breathing and journaling will simply prolong the stress, while identifying the anxiety and approaching the task will ultimately reduce it. In watching a partner’s decline, identifying and experiencing the sadness and despair of the situation will ultimately address the grief. These are two very different paths because the circumstances and primary emotions underlying the stress are vastly different. On the other hand, there are absolutely circumstances when reducing the physiology of stress is important. When we are feeling very overwhelmed and physiologically aroused we are not able to think clearly, let alone identify and address underlying emotions. All the strategies that reduce physiological arousal are important under these circumstances. In chronically stressful conditions like those I see in parents with young children, caregiving, toxic work environments, and difficult and unavoidable family dynamics, among many others, having strategies to reduce acute distress (often anxiety and anger in these situations) is crucial. 

Stress isn’t all bad? 

Kelly McGonigal is a psychology professor and stress researcher at Stanford University who has tackled the negative perception of stress. Dr. McGonigal’s research has showed that “viewing stress as only harmful leads people to cope in ways that are less helpful, whether it’s getting drunk to ‘release’ stress, procrastinating to avoid stress, or imagining worst-case scenarios.” (Parker, 2015). In her very popular and informative TED talk as well as her book, The Upside of Stress, she emphasizes that seeing the upside of stress is not about denying its harmful effects. There is significant evidence that chronic and traumatic stress can increase the risk of illness, depression, early mortality, and among other consequences. She is not refuting that. “It’s about trying to balance your mindset so that you feel less overwhelmed and hopeless about the fact that your life is stressful.”

If we think back to the work deadline, incorporating McGonigal’s work might look like anticipating and embracing the stress that comes with a work deadline, perhaps even riding the wave of increased anxious energy to get the task done. It may include seeing a work deadline as a good thing- one has a job, and perhaps meaningful work to do, or at least meaningful parts of life that are funded by one’s work. In fact, we all know of individuals (maybe even ourselves) who work better under stress or with a deadline. It serves as a motivator. In the case of the spouse whose health is failing, how could we ever anticipate a situation like that to be anything but stressful? Yet, the stress felt in that situation is deeply tied to the love felt. Often great meaning, purpose, and even appreciation can be experienced during devastating times. Individuals can even feel empowered after enduring deeply terrible events, living the mindset McGonigal describes. 

Ways to reduce stress

Even though this article simply scratched the surface of the literature on stress, you are probably gathering that stress is a far more complicated term than our conversational ease with it would suggest. I sure am. There are no easy, bullet-pointed, guaranteed ways to reduce stress because the causes and effects of stress are vastly different, and our very mindset about stress impacts our ability to cope with it. That said, here are two takeaways:

  • Dig a little deeper. What other emotions may be underlying the stress you are or a client is experiencing- anxiety (often), sadness, anger? Make that emotion the clinical focus. More specificity can help us address the underlying stresses that meditating and yoga are not.  
  • Shift your perspective. According McGonigal, viewing stress as helpful, as something everyone deals with, and that you are capable of handling can make a big difference. Stress is inevitable. If we can welcome it, it may become less problematic. 

References and Resources:

Charlton, B.G. (1992). Stress. Journal of Medical Ethics, 18, 156-159. 

McGonigal, K. (2013). How to make stress your friend [Video] TED Conferences.

McGonigal, K. (2016). The Upside of Stress. Avery. 

Parker, C.B. (2015, May 7) Embracing stress is more important than reducing stress, Stanford psychologist says. Stanford News.

Selye, H. (1976). Stress in health and disease. London: Butterworth.

What is stress? (2017). The American Institute of Stress.

Elizabeth Mosco, Ph.D., PMH-C, CPLC

Elizabeth Mosco, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in Reno, NV. She opened a private practice after 10 years of conducting home-based assessment and therapy with the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System. Dr. Mosco’s clinical interests include maternal mental health, older adults, and third wave cognitive behavioral therapies.

More by Dr. Mosco

Opinions and viewpoints expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of CE Learning Systems.

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