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Erin Olivo, Ph.D.
Erin Olivo Ph.D.

Stress: What’s Emotion Got to Do With It?

The key to managing stress is identifying the underlying emotion.

A recent APA commissioned report on stress in America reported that 48% of Americans consider stress to be having a negative impact on their lives. And over 70% of Americans report that they regularly experience physical and psychological symptoms of stress.

If left unmanaged high stress can become a chronic condition and can lead to serious problems such as obesity, insomnia, high blood pressure, chronic pain, and a weakened immune system. In fact, research shows that stress plays a role in the development of major illnesses like heart disease, depression, and anxiety disorders.

But despite the fact the media seems to have constant coverage on how to “get rid of your stress now” or “relieve stress fast,” only 17% of Americans who have significant stress say that they are doing a very good job at managing it.

So why aren’t we better at managing stress? Because we aren’t targeting the right problem!

We use stress as a catch-all phrase to describe a general sense of feeling overwhelmed, but in order to really begin to break down the problem of stress we need to get more specific and call it what it really is—distressing emotions. And these emotions come in many varieties (read this post I wrote to learn more about the Big 8 Emotion Families). Stress fueled by fear is very different than stress fueled by anger…and the solutions are different too!

Your stress and the related problems it causes all stem from emotions that are being ignored, denied, misunderstood, suppressed, or just poorly handled. Your distressing emotions, when they aren’t taken care of in a productive way, are at the root of all of your most common issues, including overeating, chronic relationship conflict, money mismanagement, substance abuse, and even, in many cases, poor physical health.

But when you are able to get a handle on your emotions, you can get a handle on your problems—and your stress. Then you can effect a top-to-bottom change in every aspect of your life through the choices you make every day. This is key to what I call Wise Mind Living.

My work with my patient Alison is a great example of this. Alison came to see me for help with stress management. She told me she was working really hard at her job, feeling stressed out, and experiencing chronic headaches, weight gain (especially around her waist), and feeling exhausted even after a good night’s sleep—all classic physical symptoms of stress. It also became clear after we spoke for a bit that she was struggling with some of the behavioral problems associated with stress too, like fighting with her husband more often and drinking wine every evening to “wind down.”

I asked Alison to keep track of which of the big eight emotions she was feeling each day for one week. She came back with her journal in hand and said, “I never realized how angry and envious I am! I thought I was just stressed out.”

It turns out that for months Alison had been doing her work and quite a bit of the work of her immediate supervisor. She told me she had consciously decided a few months ago that it was worth it to work her butt off in order to hopefully get the promotion she deserves. Although she was fully prepared to take on the extra work, what she didn’t count on was the emotional toll it would take.

Everyday as Alison watched her supervisor take credit for her work and enjoy the perks of his higher salary and authority, she was feeling more angry and envious. Once Alison was able to be more specific and could pinpoint what she was feeling, we were able to work on helping her problem solve and cope with these distressing emotions. In fact, Alison told me (as often happens and research validates) that even just labeling the emotions helped her to feel a little less distressed by them.

So here’s my assignment for you: the next time you notice you are stressed, try to label what emotions you are really feeling. Like Alison, I bet you’re likely to feel a little better just from doing that, and you will certainly be in a better position to start problem solving how to respond and ultimately change how you feel.

Source: American Psychological Association. (2013). Stress in America: The Missing Healthcare Connection. Washington DC

About the Author
Erin Olivo, Ph.D.

Erin Olivo, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University.