It seems that a great deal of what is widely believed about stress is actually based on myth. We believe the more you understand stress the easier it is to build your resilience against it. So, with this in mind, we wanted to set some of the most commonly believed myths straight.
Myth 1: Stress is the same for everybody
It is easy to think that stress is the same for everybody. But, although we all experience the same physiological reactions to threat, how we actually feel it, what we do in reaction to it and how we think about the situation in relation to the threat may vary.
For survival, we are all born with an instinctual awareness of certain threats. These include height and heat. During the course of our lives we then develop awareness of other situations that are threatening to us. These depend on the situations we encounter and how we react to them. We also learn about threat from the people around us.
This means we each have our own unique set of triggers that make us feel stressed, anxious and threatened that relate to our own experiences.
We also have our own distinct ways of coping with stress. Sometimes our ways of coping are helpful to us, can help us to bounce back and remain resilient. Sometimes our ways of coping are unhelpful and keep stress going.
Knowing our own individual triggers for stress, and also being aware of our own helpful and unhelpful ways of coping can help us to be more resilient.
Myth 2: Only major symptoms of stress require attention
Our stress reactions come in all shapes and sizes. Major symptoms, like a pounding heart, feeling sick and sweaty, or urgently needing the loo are often the signs of stress that grab our attention the most because they can be so powerful and upsetting.
There are a lot of subtle changes and symptoms that happen when we start to be bothered by something, before these more major reactions occur. While you might not notice these at the time, if you can train yourself to pick up on them earlier you can learn to manage situations better.
Try looking out for times when you notice yourself yawning more than usual, sighing or gasping. These are very subtle signs that you are over breathing and are an early indication of heightened stress response. Also muscle tension, a clenched jaw, difficulty concentrating and procrastination can all be signs that you are starting to feel stressed.
Taking time out, switching tasks or doing something that relaxes you at this early stage of the stress response, can help to prevent the build-up of stress and can help to channel your arousal into being more productive.
Myth 3: Stress is bad for your health
You may be wondering how this can possibly be a myth when there is a whole host of research pointing to stress-related illness like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and links between stress and cancer, stroke and dementia.
However, this research doesn’t give a complete picture of stress. Although in the long term unrelenting stress associated with the chronic stress cycle can indeed have a negative impact on your health, it isn’t always the case that stress is bad for you.
Our immediate response to stress can have a positive impact, preparing us to rise to a challenge and achieve our peak performance. Research shows that this response is essential for athletes to channel their energy and attention. Increases in stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in the short term help to narrow our focus enabling us to concentrate better, improve our memory, reduce our sensitivity to pain and enhance our immune response. These benefits are useful if we are competing, if we are escaping from danger, if we are doing exams, a presentation or a performance.
If you are able to keep these benefits of the stress response in mind, you can start to use the physiological changes to your advantage rather than allowing them to contribute to further stress and worry.