What If Stress Is All in Our Heads?

My first real career mentor was my manager at my third full-time job out of school. She was a vice president at our company and had a smart reply for everything. While she taught me the ins and outs of my job like any good supervisor, she also met with me for a full hour every Friday to teach me everything she’d learned in her impressive 20-year career. It was a period of rapid growth for me, and I owed most of that to her.

I’ll never forget the time she drew me a graph to explain the ideal pace of learning. It was a parabola illustrating how a low amount of challenge will leave you bored while too much challenge will leave you panicked. It looked something like this:

I was 23 at the time and learning how to be a human-resources specialist. I used the concept for years to help managers decide whether their reports were ready for promotion. It was a good way to explain how promoting people too slowly could set them up for failure just as much as promoting them too quickly. It was always a tricky balance to strike. After I left HR and embarked on an intense career jump of my own, I never forgot the importance of that sweet spot.

New York work culture (or perhaps modern American work culture in general) scoffs at this idea. In my experience, the approach is that there’s no such thing as too much: stress, busyness, success, money, challenge…the more the better. But this glamorization of stress is a dangerous game to play — not only because it’s a recipe for burnout but because according to my trusty graph, it’s a one-way ticket to panic to the point of disengagement.

Yet most of us put ourselves on this roller coaster anyway. As a result, there is an unsettling symbiosis between our manic lives and the money and energy we spend to manage them: The faster the pace of modern life, the louder the cultural conversation surrounding stress management — self-care, yoga, wellness, etc. — and the more lucrative the industries that benefit from it. But what if, instead of finding new ways to stomach the roller coaster, we learned to avoid the swings in the first place? How can we keep ourselves at the peak of that parabola — learning and engaged, challenged yet calm? Is there such a thing as “the right amount” of stress, and is that in our control?

I asked these questions to Dr. Lisa Firestone, a psychologist and the director of research and education at The Glendon Association, a nonprofit with a mission to improve mental health by addressing myriad social problems. Below are five of her tips for beginning to dismantle the thought patterns that create and proliferate stress (and not one of them involves a $100 powder or deep breathing).

1. Understand how much of your stress is self-inflicted.

“It’s important to recognize that so much of our stress is self-generated,” Firestone says. “So much of what people feel stressed about is related to their own perfectionism and isn’t about what other people are really requiring of them.” She suggests considering: “How much of this [stress] is about critical inner voices and negative thoughts I’m projecting onto others?” Take time to parse out the difference between outside pressure and self-inflicted pressure.

2. Rebrand it as challenge you are choosing to take on.

The second component to taking ownership of your stress is reframing it in your mind. “See it as a challenge rather than an overwhelming obstacle,” says Firestone. She explains that when you interpret your stress as being inflicted upon you by someone else (i.e., They demand this be perfect) rather than as a manifestation of your high standards (i.e., I want this to be perfect), you feel less in control of the situation. “People do much better with [challenges] when they feel like they’re choosing them, like they have some power.”

This idea of “rebranding stress” reminded me of a piece I read in the New York Times about interpreting the physical symptoms of stress. In a 2012 Harvard study, researchers found that stress could be relieved simply by reappraising its effects. In the study, 50 participants were asked to give a speech in front of a group of “unfriendly evaluators” (a.k.a. a stressful situation). Beforehand, a third of them were given no guidance on how to prepare, another third were given distraction in the form of video games and the last third were told that signs of stress — “a higher heart rate, faster breathing and internal jitters” — were “tools for making you strong during a stressful event.”

The people who were primed to think of their stress as “helpful” performed significantly better. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal wrote in her book The Upside of Stress (as quoted by the Times), “What I learned from these studies, surveys and conversations truly changed the way I think about stress. … The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”

3. Don’t ruminate on it.

Firestone says that unlike certain other problems, simply talking about stress usually doesn’t bring relief. “Complaining about stress makes people more stressed,” she says. “It’s one thing if you are asking friends or coworkers or relationship partners for ideas…but just complaining about it doesn’t make it better. In fact, it makes it worse. … I’ve had so many experiences recently of getting [patients] to spend less time ruminating, and they feel a lot better really quickly.”

4. Don’t assume “stress relief” is the same as dealing with the source of it.

Instead of feeding your stress by belaboring it conversationally or trying to avoid it with various external forms of stress relief, Firestone suggests taking time to evaluate the true source of your feelings. “If you find yourself complaining over and over again about something being stressful, either change your attitude toward it or change the situation.”

How to do that? “Challenge your thoughts instead of feeding them,” she says. “What are the negative thoughts you’re having about yourself in relation to the situation? How much are you projecting onto your boss or coworkers or relationship partner that you’re not cutting it, or need to do more or better or whatever it is that’s stressing you? Test out the realities of it: Where’s the evidence of the fact that if you don’t do this perfect or better or great, everything’s going to turn out terrible?”

More often than not, she says, the evidence will be lacking.

5. Learn your own natural limits and resilience when it comes to stress.

Ultimately, she says, managing stress is about understanding and unpacking your own limits and triggers. Whether or not your stress is a result of pressure you put on yourself or pressure others have put on you, taking time to understand your natural limits is important for navigating stress. It may sound simple, but some people thrive under stress while others do not. Adjusting your life according to your true nature — rather than hoping it will change — is an important step in changing your relationship with stress.

Collage by Emily Zirimis; photo via Getty Images. 

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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