May 14, 2021
by Tina Arnoldi
A recent article on APA PsycNet examined how we regulate stress responses. The authors found that “altering second-level valuation systems—shifting the valuation of stress from 'is bad for me' to 'can be good for me'—fundamentally changes the overarching goal of stress regulation from reducing stress to optimizing stress responses to achieve valued goals.” However, we live in a culture that tends to view all stress as negative. Why is that and can we change the narrative about stress?
Jasmine Chen, Founder and CEO of LIFE Intelligence believes we misunderstand stress which leads to the problem of labeling all uncomfortable emotions as stress. “Frustration, resentment, grief, helplessness, anxiety, and loneliness can all feel a little bit like stress,” said Chen. “But the reality is that each of those emotions are far more nuanced and require different coping and communication skills. But, because we're rarely taught emotional granularity in schools, once we become adults, we simply use the socially-acceptable term stress for all of our emotional needs. Bad day? I'm stressed. Going through a divorce? So stressful. We need to distinguish stress from other experiences and emotions and deal with them separately."
While Therapist Joanne Ketch, LPC, LMFT, LCDC, NCC believes stress research is helpful since it can negatively impact health, immunity, and resiliency. But she adds that it’s equally helpful to acknowledge that expected events such as vacations, holidays, weddings, and religious rites of passage can be stressful yet celebratory. Ketch explains, “Each emotion has a chemical pattern associated with it, and it is these patterns that determine the feelings and actions that follow. In terms of changing the conversation, it might help to think of eustress from these positive events as energy. The flow of energy is a catalyst for social engagement, or motivation to accomplish a needed or wanted task. We can encourage people to reframe the energy of stress into an action that allows them to channel the energy into something productive, positive, and playful.”
Psychologist Eamonn Leaver notes that stress is what motivates us to act. “It gets us working hard to achieve things that are important to us,” said Leaver. “A stress-free life is almost certainly one that lacks any real, substantial achievements. Stressful events are what lead to personal and professional growth.”
Research on the relationship between stress and performance shows that too much and too little stress are both bad for us. This is why Leaver believes the focus needs to be on how we manage stress. “If it doesn’t spiral out of control, stressful events propel us forward,” he added. Psychologist Paul Greene, Ph.D, with the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy agrees with Leaver. “Our overly negative perception is that we become most aware of stress only when it has reached unhealthy high levels."
In Leaver’s experience “the most successful and content people are the ones that don't shy away from stress but tackle it head-on. They're open to experiencing the stress, and while they don't enjoy the feeling of being stressed, they don't allow the discomfort to paralyze them and prevent them from reaching their goals.”
While experts have different views about the management or stress, the majority agree that avoiding all stress is not a good idea. “We wouldn't take risks or make changes in our lives if it weren't for stress,” said Liz Kent, LCSW-C with Perissos Therapy. “Stress forces our bodies and our minds to move beyond fear." Leaver added, “Even if being stress-free would lead to better physical health, I would still argue that it is better to live a shorter life filled with achievements than to live a longer life of mediocrity.”