There are many myths about stress preventing us from living longer, happier, and healthier lives. Here are eight of the most common:
1. Stress comes from your circumstances. This seems true, just as the Earth seems flat, but stress actually comes from the thoughts you have about your circumstances, not the circumstances themselves. This is why people have different emotional reactions to the same situation.
2. Stress is a motivator. We need to distinguish between stress and stimulation. Having deadlines, setting goals, and pushing yourself to perform at capacity are stimulating. Stress is when you're anxious, upset, or frustrated, which dramatically reduce your ability to perform. People who get things done under stress are succeeding in spite of their stress, not because of it.
3. Some stress is good for you. Another popular myth, initially created by Dr. Hans Selye, the founder of the modern stress concept. Selye found that activities like sports and sex also produced a surge in stress hormones, so he promoted the idea of good stress. But research since then has proven that stress contributes to 75% to 90% of medical conditions, including the six leading causes of death. Stimulation is good for you (see #2 above). Stress is not.
4. Without stress in your life, you would just sit around and drool. Some people are so used to experiencing stress that they don't remember what life was like without it. But look at young children. They experience very little stress, yet have plenty of energy to explore their interests. The same can be true for adults, even with the responsibilities we have.
5. The best way to deal with stress is to exercise, breathe, and relax. Remember that stress doesn't come from what's going on in your life. It comes from your thoughts about what's going on in your life. Popular "stress management" tools relieve the effects of stress, but not the cause, so the stress returns again and again. A more effective long-term approach involves learning to think differently about challenging situations so the stress is no longer produced.
6. Stress is a choice. Stress is a byproduct of subconscious beliefs you have about the world. You can't choose not to believe something. You believe it because you think it's true. To eliminate stress, you must learn to challenge these beliefs so that you see them differently. That's not a function of choice. It's a function of insight.
7. Stress is inevitable. Look for something you're not bothered by that other people are (a fear of heights, driving fast, flying). People who experience stress in those situations may say that it's inevitable because they can't imagine not feeling stress, but you know that this isn't so. Their emotions come from their beliefs. The same is true for whatever you're stressed out about now (money, health, work, etc.). It's entirely possible to think differently and not experience stress in your life, as unlikely as that sounds. It just requires a different approach.
8. Stress is not a big deal. The word "stress" is sometimes confined to anxiety about deadlines, which most people can live with, but it's actually much bigger. Every moment of frustration you have about your job, every point of friction in your relationships at work and at home, every fear or concern you have about money, your health, and the future—essentially, the sum total of all the negative emotions in your life, from the moment you get up until the moment you lie down, is stress. For most individuals, it is a very big deal.
We hesitate to admit how big it is because of the myths above, which are woven tightly into our culture and prevent us from dealing with stress more effectively. But with a little application, anyone can learn the truth about how stress works and, instead of simply managing it, start eliminating it.
Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight, a process that is changing the way individuals and organizations understand stress and resilience. His new book, The Myth of Stress, reveals where stress really comes from and how to quickly transform problems such as relationships, weight loss, money, success, heartbreak, divorce, and more. You can ask Andrew questions in the comments here, in his Facebook group, or through Twitter @mythofstress.