These days, stress seems a standard part of the human condition.
Last year, Americans were given the dubious honour of being among the most stressed out people in the world.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that 55 per cent of Americans stated they experienced stress a lot during the day. That finding placed Americans as among the most stressed of the 143 countries surveyed. The global average for experiencing stress a lot during the day was 35 per cent.
Experts note that in an ironic twist, many people are now so stressed, they find themselves getting stressed about their stress levels.
But is stress really all bad?
Lisa Damour, PhD, a private-practice psychologist, doesn’t think so.
“Stress and anxiety can both be good, and they can both be bad. Healthy stress happens when we are working at the edge of our capacities and thereby expanding those capacities. Stress becomes unhealthy when it becomes chronic - allowing no opportunity for recovery - or traumatic,” she told Theravive.
Stress is unavoidable and, if in healthy levels, can play a useful role in a person’s daily life. Damour likens it to exercise, in that stress may not feel good whilst it’s happening but can actually be good for you in the long run.
“Stress happens when we stretch ourselves and, amazingly, we've found that it has an inoculating function. People who weather difficult events effectively go on to be more resilient in the face of new difficulties. In other words, moderate levels of stress can help us become more emotionally durable,” she said.
Managing stress can be complicated, and can depend on the form of stress a person is under. According to the American Psychological Association, stress can come in three forms: acute stress, episode acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress is the most common and might be due to things like a deadline at work, a car accident, or problems with children. Acute stress is typically only a short-term experience and because of this, doesn’t do the same harm as long-term stress. Some people do experience acute stress more frequently, and this is referred to as episodic acute stress.
Stress becomes harmful if it reaches chronic levels. This may occur if a person is in a consistently bad situation they can’t find a way out of, such as living in poverty, an unhappy marriage, or working in a job that they hate.
If a person’s stress exceeds a level that could enable them to become psychologically stronger, it is likely damaging. As well as the psychological impact, stress can cause physical symptoms and if left untreated can result in health problems, heart attacks and stroke.
Damour advises that those feeling overwhelmed by their level of stress should seek help from a professional who will assist them in developing strategies to cope with stress. Mindfulness techniques are one method that has been used in recent years for the management of stress and anxiety.
Like stress, feelings of anxiety can be harmful in high levels, but Damour says this too can be useful.
“Anxiety is healthy when it operates as an alarm system that alerts us to threats, such as a driver swerving in a nearby lane, or at the times when our own procrastination might lead to trouble. It's unhealthy when the alarm doesn't make sense - when it rings all the time for no good reason, or when it blares over minor concerns,” she told Theravive.
Damour says reframing how anxiety is viewed as helpful and even protective may assist people in making use of feelings of anxiety.
As well as writing the book "Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls", Damour works with teenagers in her private practice. She encourages them to harness their feelings of anxiety and pay attention to what those feelings may be trying to say. She uses the example of encouraging teenage girls to pay attention if they find themselves feeling anxious when at a party, as these feelings of worry may be correctly alerting them to an issue or problem.
In a similar way, she says that if a person is feeling anxious in the lead up to an important exam but is yet to start studying, this is a normal reaction and, if harnessed and acted upon by hitting the books, will enable that person to feel better (and hopefully ace the exam).
Although around half of Americans say they experience stress throughout the day, this may be entirely normal, and of use to everyday life.
Damour says that is a person is worried, they should speak to a professional who will be able to discuss their stress, and determine if treatment is needed.
She argues psychologists need to take on an active role in providing reasonable messaging to counter wellness companies that suggest people should feel relaxed or calm at all times.
Wellbeing is important, she says, but the goal shouldn’t be to be happy and relaxed at all times. She regards this as an unhealthy and potentially dangerous idea that is as unachievable as it is unnecessary.
If people are stressing about not being happy and relaxed, she says, their day to day life is likely to be an unhappy one.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.