When You Are Stressed About Stress You Are Stressed
An unwillingness to have emotions makes them stronger
Posted September 10, 2019
What is your go-to when you feel stressed out? Do you like a few glasses of wine, an hours-long vent session, or a creative excuse to get out of a social engagement? These are all examples of experiential avoidance—an unwillingness to experience uncomfortable internal emotions or sensations and active efforts to change, reduce, or eliminate them (Forsyth and Eifert 1996). Does experiential avoidance work to alleviate feelings of stress? Yep. It works or we wouldn’t do it. But how long does that last? Look at your personal experience and take inventory:
1. What do you do or not do when you feel stressed?
2. What does it get you (i.e., what discomfort does it relieve)?
3. What is its cost?
When our reactions to stress result in temporary relief but come at a cost to our health, our relationships, or other areas of importance, it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship to stress.
Think of it this way (Stoddard, 2019): Imagine I have you in a little booth suspended above a barracuda tank. I tell you, “Whatever you do, don’t get stressed and you will be fine. Unfortunately, if you do feel stressed, the floor of the booth will open, dropping you into the barracuda tank. But just don’t get stressed and you will be totally fine!”
What do you think is going to happen? Right—you’re stressed…and fish food. Is it because you just didn’t try hard enough to control your stress? Was the incentive not quite high enough? Of course not—our most primitive instinct is to survive. So why did you get stressed and end up swimming with the fishes? Because when you are unwilling to experience stress, you are stressed about stress so you are stressed (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson 1999). See the trap? Your relationship to stress becomes one in which you evaluate it as bad, dangerous, and deadly.
So, of course, you are stressed about having stress.
So what should you do the next time you hear on Good Morning America or the Huffington Post: “Stress is bad for you! Stress will kill you! You shouldn’t get stressed!” It turns out, stress has been wrongfully getting a bad rap (McGonigal 2013). While stress does release adrenaline (the hormone thought to be harmful to the body), it also releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that enhances empathy and motivates us to seek and give care. Oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory—it’s good for our bodies and actually strengthens our hearts. And, fascinatingly, all we have to do to mitigate the negative effects of adrenaline is simply appraise stress as helpful.
Come again? Stress, helpful? YES — stress can be motivating! Stress is what prompts you to prepare for the important job interview, watch over your small children in a crowded place, and get ready for the big game. If you were totally chill, you’d likely bomb the interview, lose your kid at the mall, and blow the game. As it turns out, there is an optimal arousal zone when it comes to doing well (Yerkes and Dodson 1908): when stress is very high or very low, it has the potential to negatively impact performance. But a moderate level of arousal is helpful.
The best way to manage stress is simply to change your relationship to it. So stop struggling to avoid and reduce your stress (how’s that working for you, anyway?) and instead work on accepting that to be human is to know stress, and stress need not be our enemy. You can do that by remembering:
1. Stress is motivating and can improve performance at moderate levels
2. Stress prompts us to seek connection with others and this is good for our health
3. Stress is only damaging when we evaluate it as damaging
4. When we are stressed about stress we are stressed
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you give up your meditation practice because it makes you feel less stressed. There is nothing wrong with getting your bliss on — as long as your strategies don’t come at the cost of other meaningful and important pursuits. So go ahead and yoga-it-up, just don’t neglect your friends and family while you’re at it.
Forsyth, J. P., and G. H. Eifert. 1996. “The Language of Feeling and the Feeling of Anxiety: Contributions of the Behaviorisms Toward Understanding the Function-Altering Effects of Language.” The Psychological Record46: 607–649.
Hayes, S., K. Strosahl, and K. Wilson. 1999. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.New York: The Guilford Press.
McGonigal, K. 2013. “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”Filmed June 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland, video, 13:21, https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_frien…