Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Stress: The Whole Truth

Beyond reduction, management, and coping

"I'm so stressed"; "I'm stressed out"—words spoken by people every day. 

Stress is one of the most written-about areas in psychology. Just by listening and reading, one could easily conclude that stress is the cause for all that ails us. Feeling physically ill? Stress. Not sleeping? Stress. Having relationship problems? Stress. Forgetting things? Stress. Feeling depressed? Stress. Eating, drinking, drugging too much? Stress.

The literature is replete with assertions strengthening this hypothesis. Accordingly, stress can make you ill, weaken your immune system, make it hard to manage your emotions, damage your relationships, drive you to drink and smoke, foster addictions, age you more quickly, impair your memory, keep you awake at night, bring on anxiety and depression, and interfere with your sex life.[1] It wouldn't be too much to say that stress kills.

It's like that old adage, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Well, if the notion of "stress" dominates our diagnosis and understanding of everything that ails us, we shouldn't be surprised to find indicators of stress everywhere we look. All we need now is the "cure" for stress and we'd all feel a lot happier.

No need to worry—cures are nearby waiting to descend on anyone open to "getting help" from their friends, families, and counselors. They tell us to unwind with friends, sleep more, change our diets, laugh, think positively, get massages, meditate, take more quiet time, pray, practice yoga, listen to relaxation tapes, and practice deep breathing.[2]

The advice from the literature is similar, suggesting that we learn to calm down, relax, and take it easy. This counsel is packaged in the notions and language of "stress reduction," "stress management," and "coping with stress"—all phrases that assume that stress has no positive function and is not worthy of deeper understanding and transformation. Stress is to be gotten rid of like an illness.[3]

This viewpoint has serious drawbacks, leading us to misunderstand the background psychological process and dynamics of stress.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

Four Reasons to Rethink Stress

1. Stress can be an indication of energy that needs to be lived, not relieved.

Some stress needs to be amplified rather than relieved, and the power behind the stressor needs to be integrated. 

Consider this: When I teach psychology to massage students, I ask them how they would help me with the stress in my shoulders. Almost every student rubs my shoulders in order to relax them. That's the conventional paradigm—relieve my stress. 

However, this approach doesn't work all the time. Specifically, when you massage some people's shoulders, instead of becoming more relaxed, their shoulders move around and push upward against the massager's hands. That person's body is saying, "You are putting me in touch with an energy in me that wants to push back, to be used." 

This dynamic is true for many of us who are not free to be as powerful, direct, and intense as we really are. Our unused energy becomes somatized and psychologized—we feel this energy in our bodies, like a tension, and then label it "stress." When this is the case,  stress "reduction" in the form of advice to take it easy and relax will be unsuccessful. If we try to relieve this stress, it will simply re-arise because we need to learn to use the energy in our system instead of letting it go. 

2. Stress can be an indication of a project or goal that is being neglected.

Some stress is caused by a neglect of something—a calling, a project, or a passion. For example, I once worked with a client who had one big aspiration, but after entering a committed relationship, he began to abandon his dream so that he could be more available to his partner. This man described himself as incredibly stressed out. If we followed the conventional wisdom, we would try to help him manage and reduce his stress.

However, this man didn't need to relax more; instead, he needed to use the tension inside of him to resist being overly focused on his relationship to the detriment of his deeper dreams. Relieving his stress would not be sustainable because what he considers "stress" is actually the result of something in his life that needs attention. His stress had a message in it: "I won't let you forget something that is truly important to you."

3. Stress can result from problems that are not effectively addressed by stress reduction and stress management.  

When asked about the greatest stresses people experience, two answers are the most common—lack of sleep and concerns about weight-loss. However, stress reduction techniques may not be the best response to these stresses.

With regard to stress about lack of sleep, consider the fact that about 60 million Americans a year have insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time, which leads to even more serious sleep deficits. Most experts recommend making sleep schedules, monitoring eating and drinking habits, creating nighttime rituals, exercising during the day, and not taking naps. Managing stress can be important to getting more sleep, but it's rarely on the top of our list.

Regarding stress around weight loss, it is important to note that people sustain weight loss only about 5-10 percent of the time despite it being a $60 billion industry. In addition, research indicates that people, especially women, are regularly cruel to their bodies. In my own research, I have learned that loving one's body or losing weight requires a difficult confrontation with cultural values, pressures, and norms as well as real changes in one's life—relationships, work, and more. Telling people to relax is relatively superficial given the dilemma people face and it will likely be ineffective.

4. Stress can result from group marginalization, discrimination, abuse, and historical trauma.

A great majority of what is written about stress fails to address the type of stress suffered by people whose lives are constrained and pained by the injustice of discrimination and marginalization. In that way, conventional notions of stress further marginalize certain peoples, relegating them to America’s shadow. They read articles about stress and don't see their problems reflected. 

For example, we know that blacks are subject to a biased employment system, law enforcement system, education system, and have a history of trauma carried over for generations. We also know that “racism has negative psychological consequences for African Americans such as increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.” Black women, perhaps the most marginalized group, have been shown to bear even greater stress. For instance, between the ages of 49 and 55, black women are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women. 

There exists a similar neglect of the cultural discrimination of Native American females. For instance, in my review of the mainstream literature on stress, I had never before come across terms like “soul wound”, “spiritual coping,” and “cultural resilience”—terms that are commonplace in the literature discussing the stress Native women experience. 

Simply put, we need a model that goes beyond stress managment and reduction; we need a model “that situates [stress] within the larger context of… colonized people.” We need a model that goes beyond the coping strategies of the individual and focuses also on changes needed in the wider culture—a model that includes the fact that a person's stress may be a function of cultural biases and that for their stress to be reduced, we may all need to change.

I have no doubt that some people who are stressed need help to reduce and manage their stress. I myself have benefited from this advice at times. However, this orientation risks dumbing down our understanding, failing to address the root of our stress, and colluding in a kind of colorbliness to the history and present of social injustice. We need more critical and psychological reflection so that the deep and powerful things people suffer from aren't made superficial by quick fix answers like, "Don't worry, be happy" or "Relax, take it easy, let go, and don't get so stressed out."


[1] Stress symptoms and effects on health: Mayo Clinic and Healthline News

[2] Stress management techniques: The American Institute of Stress and WebMD

[3] See for example, one of the best-studied stress-relievers is the relaxation response, first described by Harvard's Herbert Benson, M.D. on The American Institute of Stress website


You might also like:

Winning the Battle with Inner Criticism

To Compromise or Not to Compromise

6 Reasons Not to Forgive, Not Yet

David Bedrick
Source: David Bedrick

Let’s Keep in Touch!

To find out about recent interviews, articles, and events, click here

Schedule a one-on-one counseling session:

Follow me on Twitter

Find me on Facebook

To read more of my posts on this blog, click here

I am the author of Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology

Signed copies of the book are for sale on my website:

Author Photo by Lisa Blair Photography