Hearing That “Stress Kills” Makes Stress Worse
Imagine that your boss walks into your office. She’s in a pinch—the main presenter for today’s company-wide stress relief seminar can’t make it. You’re a great speaker, and your boss needs you to fill in. Although you have no problem presenting, you know little about stress management. What do you do? You turn to your friend Google for some quick research. One hour later, you walk over to the large conference room with your notes and begin.
“Did you know that stress is the number one health threat in the United States, according to the World Health Organization?” POW!
“Did you know that stress is linked to six leading causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, liver disease, accidents, lung ailments, and suicide?” BOOM!
“Did you also know that modern-day stress is more ‘pervasive, persistent, and insidious’ than ever before, according to the The American Institute of Stress?” BAM!
You continue with statistic after shocking statistic and end with a little pep talk: “Please be aware of your stress levels and get them under control. We all want to live long and meaningful lives.”
The audience is silent . . . you give yourself a mental pat on the back; your boss will be pleased. The next day, she walks into your office. Wait, why isn’t she smiling? Uh oh. Employee stress levels have skyrocketed. Apparently, people are worried about their health, and several didn’t even make it into work today. You’re baffled. What did you do wrong?
Nothing. Well, nothing obvious at least. You approached the issue the same way that the multibillion-dollar stress management industry does. You told the story of stress as shaped by news media and popular culture. Here’s the narrative in a nutshell—stress is bad, very bad; stress kills. After sharing this story, you prescribed a remedy in the form of scare tactics.
Unfortunately, this approach does not work to reduce stress. It neither works in this hypothetical story nor in reality. Recent research out of Yale and Harvard found that scaring people with statistics on stress actually makes stress worse. It stands to reason that thinking, “Oh no, I’m stressed, and stress is so bad,” actually causes more stress.
There is no arguing that there is a worldwide stress epidemic. You can do some simple online searches and find the horrifying statistics for yourself. What’s in question is how we approach this challenge. What can be done to address it?
It’s time to pause and recalibrate our approach to stress management. I propose we shift our goal from trying to stress less to striving to stress better.
Stressing better means telling a more holistic story. Not all stress is bad. In fact, a certain type of stress known as eustress can actually enhance performance and well-being. And here’s the kicker—studies show that making people aware of the advantages of stress can be a powerful antidote to its ills.
Stressing better means ditching the unrealistic goal of eliminating stress completely (which adds to our misery when we can’t do it).
Stressing better means being more compassionate with ourselves. Somehow it has become acceptable to beat ourselves up when we don’t meet our own benchmarks for success. This self-criticism is not acceptable. The research is crystal clear—self-compassion is instrumental in achieving greater well-being in the face of adversity.
Stressing better is what I will be blogging about on PsychCentral. I’m excited to be here and look forward to engaging in meaningful dialogues.
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Jain, R. (2017). Hearing That “Stress Kills” Makes Stress Worse. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/stress-better/2014/11/hearing-that-stress-kills-makes-stress-worse/