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Myths Around Stress And How To Deal With Them

By Dr Jorgen Folkersen, MD

September 10 2018 - The last few decades of scientific research into stress has provided a new and more diverse picture of what stress is, contradicting our previous understanding of stress, its causes and prevention.

A thorough examination of this research debunks many common myths around stress. These include:

1. "Stress is something I get from my work place"

While it is true that stress may be triggered at the work place, it is important to know that stress is most commonly triggered by two main sources of human suffering:

A. Physical traumatic experiences. You may experience agonising physical trauma, like losing a leg or you may witness someone else be severely injured physically.

B. Social threats or social conflicts. Whenever you experience social "defeat" such as being fired or excluded from social occasions with friends or family, these are situations where you may feel severe social stress. You may also feel social stress if you have an experience of having "failed" in social situations where a lot of people have witnessed your failure. For example, an important final exam which you were the only one of your classmates not to pass.

Learning: Stress may be triggered by a diversity of conditions and experiences throughout our lives. Stress in the workplace tends very frequently to be triggered by social factors, such as "pressure" from leaders or conflicts with colleagues. In many cases, however, severe harmful stress or burnout is simultaneously triggered by diversity factors from both our work and private life, such as marital conflicts, death in the family or economic trouble.

2. "I get stressed when I do hard physical work or hard physical exercise because my heart beats faster and I sweat".

Many people have heard from authorities that when you get stressed you need to relax your body and mind. While it is true that relaxation of the mind is a good thing, relaxing the body does not help with harmful stress, because in our modern society, stress is primarily of mental origin. For thousands of years it has been known that physical exercise is beneficial not only to your physical health but can also prevent harmful mental stress and relax the brain. The physical activity can be cycling, walking, running, swimming, rowing etc.

Learning: Physical exercise is an effective remedy against harmful stress.

3."Stress is always harmful"

It is true that stress may be harmful and in severe chronic cases have lifelong consequences to both mental and physical health. Many cases of harmful stress are, however, short lasting and provide no long-term consequences. In recent years, science has revealed an increasing number of neurohormones that are able to modify the stress response. One of the most remarkable findings is the advent of the positive stress-response characterised by being beneficial to both physical and mental health. In addition, positive stress can also enable better individual performance of demanding tasks. The positive stress-response generates neurohormones that protect against mental and physical harm caused by the chronic impact of the classical stress-response.

Learning: Science has shown that humans react differently to the same potentially stress provoking challenges. The individual differences are so big that some people react with a chronic and potentially harmful stress-response to the same challenge which does not have any negative impact on others. These people have developed a strong stress resilience and may even have a positive stress-response. One example on this is making a public speaking among a large group of people. This is a stress and anxiety provoking activity for some, but an inspiring opportunity for others.

Another promising aspect of positive stress is that it can be trained. There are however several important prerequisites for this training to be successful:

A. The person cannot develop positive stress if the person is suffering from harmful stress. This applies especially to social stress.

B. The trainer of positive stress needs to have a high level of social intelligence in order to create the positive social environment for the trainees that supports the development of positive stress.

C. The optimal social environment for creation of positive stress needs to be supportive, friendly and promote a "no-blame" culture. This is particularly important because trainees are encouraged to try to exceed their own limits and try out various strategies for improving themselves in tasks they fear the most. Sometimes this will result in failure and such failure needs to be looked upon as a learning opportunity for future growth.

4. "Harmful stress is triggered by factors I am exposed to from the outside, and everybody is vulnerable to these factors".

When people are facing challenges in their life they cannot overcome, they very often tend to blame unavoidable factors in the environment for the failure. This is how our mind protects us from admitting our shortcomings. Some events are, however, so agonising that we need to activate our inborn "hiding mechanism" which means that our mind helps us forget the traumatic emotions we experienced. Examples of this are physically traumatic events such as armed robbery or violent assaults but also agonising social defeats like being rejected by our loved ones. This can happen at any age, but small children are particularly sensitive to such social harassment, because they are learning their social skills in their early years of life. The impact is a lifelong "hiding" of emotions, disturbed social skills and mental problems with severe negative impact on every aspect of social life. This hiding mechanism has short term benefits because it enables the individual to survive mentally, but at a high long-term price. The person is in a condition of chronic harmful stress during the rest of their life if they do not receive therapeutic help releasing the trauma.

Learning: Hidden stress is a condition of chronic stress caused by traumatic experiences earlier in life. This is therefore an example of stress that arises from the "inside" of the affected person. Hidden stress has lifelong negative mental and physical impact as well as negative impact on social skills. Antisocial thoughts and behaviour are characteristic examples of this, ranging from mild to severe. Mild antisocial behaviour can be a proneness to get angry or insulted by minor causes. In the severe variant it can be a debilitating angry or even aggressive attitude towards most people. When these people are asked why they show this negative behavior they do not know where it comes from. They may even rationalise it and express that the victim deserves this aggresive behavior for various reasons.

Another equally significant finding is that hidden stress often is an important and unconscious contributor in the work-related stress cocktail mentioned earlier. Such a "stress-cocktail" may suddenly hit people as an acute case of severe debilitating stress forcing them to leave work for a prolonged period. Hidden stress can also create a condition of chronic low resilience to new stress. Hidden stress often exist as a relatively well compensated condition for many years, but may suddenly be "re-activated" when several other stress triggers emerge simultaneously later in life. Effective stress interventions must, in this case, include trauma focused therapy in order to be fully effective.



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