Dispelling myths about stress

Not everything we think about stress is true.

Sometimes just the word stress is enough to put us on edge. It’s important to remember though that everyone experiences stress sometimes because stress is our body’s response to disruptions in our norms and routines. Another way of defining it, is our brain’s response to any demand and many things can trigger this response, including change. Some people have more effective coping skills and can bounce back from stressful events quicker than others. Regardless of how you cope, it’s important to work on dealing with stress effectively because left unchecked, the physical and emotional effects of stress harm our bodies, as well as our minds (National Institute for Mental Health, 2013).

All animals, including human beings, have a stress response. When our brains interpret a threat, real or perceived, our instinctive response, fight or flight is evoked and during this time, chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstreams. They speed up our heart rate and our breathing in order to give us the burst of energy we need to face the threat (fight) or flee to safety (flight). Potential sources of stress or threats are all around us in our everyday lives – being cut off in traffic, waiting in long lines, loss, relationship issues and money problems and so on. Stress can also come from traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, abuse – emotional, verbal or physical and natural disasters.

In spite of this broadly available information about stress, there are still several myths surrounding it and the human experience of it. These myths are dispelled and written about in the “Stress Solution” by Miller and Smith (1994). Clarifying what stress is and is not and how to effectively cope with it is important when it comes to working on our problems. Having accurate information can help us take a course of action in combatting stress before it leads to physical or emotional health issues.

Myth 1: Stress is the same for everybody

Completely wrong. Stress is different for each of us. What is stressful for one person may or may not be stressful for another; each of us responds to stress in an entirely different way.

Myth 2: Stress is always bad for you

According to this view, zero stress makes us happy and healthy. Wrong. Stress is to the human condition what tension is to the violin string: too little and the music is dull and raspy; too much and the music is shrill or the string snaps. Stress can be the kiss of death or the spice of life. The issue, really, is how to manage it. Managed stress makes us productive and happy; mismanaged stress hurts and even kills us.

Myth 3: Stress is everywhere, so you can’t do anything about it

Not so. You can plan your life so that stress does not overwhelm you. Effective planning involves setting priorities and working on simple problems first, solving them and then going on to more complex difficulties. When stress is mismanaged, it’s difficult to prioritize. All your problems seem to be equal and stress seems to be everywhere.

Myth 4: The most popular techniques for reducing stress are the best ones

Again, not so. No universally effective stress reduction techniques exist. We are all different, our lives are different, our situations are different and our reactions are different. Only a comprehensive program tailored to the individual works.

Myth 5: No symptoms, no stress

The absence of symptoms does not mean the absence of stress. In fact, camouflaging symptoms with medication may deprive you of the signals you need for reducing the strain on your physiological and psychological systems.

Myth 6: Only major symptoms of stress require attention

This myth assumes that the “minor” symptoms, such as headaches or stomach acid, may be safely ignored. Minor symptoms of stress are the early warnings that your life is getting out of hand and that you need to do a better job of managing stress.

Michigan State University Extension offers programs to help those in need identify and cope with stress in their everyday lives. These programs include RELAX: Alternatives to Anger and Stress Less with Mindfulness. For information about these programs and many others, please contact the local extension office in your county or visit our website.

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