Most stress management literature, irrespective of authors or theoretical underpinnings, has one thing in common: focus on the “right” way to handle stress, either preventively or responsively. Let’s call this the adaptive coping approach to managing stress.
Is there something wrong with this approach? Of course not – actually, it’s what most stress management really is and should be about. What, perhaps, is problematic is the conspicuous absence (or at least underrepresentation) of discussions on how not to handle stress.
Here’s why that’s an issue: with or without expert advice, people will do something to get their stress under control. And, oftentimes their actions, aimed at alleviating stress, will be ineffective or even more detrimental. Therefore, before discussing the right ways of addressing stress, it makes sense to first do away with ineffective or harmful stress management tactics people spontaneously employ.
As a contribution to that goal, I here provide a short and simple overview of common ways stress is mishandled and explain why they need to be avoided.
Misrepresentation & Denial
The first rule of managing stress is that you don’t talk about stress – or so they would have you believe. Unfortunately, the belief that stress is a sign of weakness, or inability to take care of oneself, is still widespread. Even societies we’ve come to see as models for de-stigmatization and self-acceptance have a long way to go in uprooting these entrenched misconceptions.
Apart from misrepresenting it as a sign of weakness, other ways stress is being misrepresented include minimization („It‘s no big deal, I can handle it“) and glorification („What doesn‘t kill me, makes me stronger“).
Misrepresentation, in any form, inevitably leads to mishandling. When denied, stress won’t be addressed properly; when minimized, we’ll react with delay; when glorified, we’ll come back asking for more. All of this can cause stressful experiences to be prolonged and intensified, until they finally burn us out.
Among the more obvious errors in handling stress, overreliance on psychoactive substances is perhaps the most dangerous and risky. Stress is associated with most of the less-than-pleasant moods and emotional states, and a wide variety of substances have the potential to alter such states in the opposite direction. Tobacco, alcohol and other “recreational” drugs are widely used for these purposes because they’re (mostly) legal and easy to come by. But here I’m also referring to medical drugs, such as prescription anxiolytics, that end up being misused.
What they all have in common is addictive potential, tendency to produce physical diseases when used for too long, and the huge financial burden their use incurs.
Additionally, overreliance on chemical “treatment” of one’s emotional states may mean a missed opportunity to understand ourselves, master our inner world and find longer-term solutions to whatever is stressing us out.
Chemical mood regulators have their counterparts in certain mood-altering behaviors. These so-called “comfort behaviors”, although not intoxicating in the narrow sense of the word, end up eliciting strong chemical reactions in the body that also affect how we feel. Two most pertinent examples of such behaviors are emotional eating and stress shopping.
These two behaviors trigger natural pain killers called endorphins; food, through enjoyment of eating rituals and stimulation of our sense of taste, and shopping via its own rituals, socialization, novelty effect and sense of gain.
The negative side effects of these and other comfort behaviors are curiously similar to those of chemical mood changers; they tend to get out of control, mimicking real addictions and causing additional stress. Obviously, they also distract us from dealing with the real causes of stress, cost us money, and, in the case of comfort foods, our physical health.
When under stress, our natural tendency is to look for support among friends, and for good reason. Receiving social support makes problems seem less threatening and more manageable, and can strengthen our social bonds. But this natural, almost reflexive reaction does not come without risks. Sharing our inner world when under stress often spills over into oversharing – saying too much, too soon and to too many people.
As a result, instead of providing assurance and bonding, our unregulated reactions may cause others to withdraw and deprive us of support, which causes even more stress. Sometimes, friends may muster the strength to listen through, but instead of reacting in a composed and constructive manner, they get caught up in the emotional whirlpool and begin to validate our view of the situation, instead of helping us understand it more clearly.
Finally, overreliance on support from others may mean that we’re not dealing effectively with issues at hand. We maybe want others to listen, to provide us with space to ventilate, but not to support us in taking concrete measures. This is why we keep coming back for more support so often – because we fail to learn how to address our pain points effectively.
One More Thing…
Now that you know what not to do when under stress, make sure you pay attention to which of these reactions you tend to utilize in rushed attempts to manage it.
One thing you should not do once you detect one or more of these tendencies in yourself (here’s another “not to do”) is to be too harsh on yourself for doing them. We all make missteps in attempts to relieve pain; so, instead of chastising yourself for simply being human, show some self-compassion. Accept your vulnerability and fragility without self-pity, self-blame, or self-centeredness. Then, start looking for ways to rid yourself of maladaptive stress coping mechanisms.
It’s a long way ahead of you, but with some persistence and a lot of self-compassion, you’ll pull it off.
Best of luck!