Things I used to believe about stress

Lately, I’ve been bombarded with headlines like this:

  • Reduce stress now!
  • The deadly effects of stress
  • How stress destroys the brain
  • Stress leads to the decay of your soul and gives you a saggy neck

I mean, really folks. Why don’t you just post some neon signs outside my house that say “START WORRYING ABOUT STRESS, RIGHT NOW!”

The reality is: there’s no way to eliminate all stress in life. I used to worry about stress much more than I do now. Then, I found wonderful little bit of research on our perceptions of stress, and I’ve totally latched onto it:

In 1998, researchers asked thirty thousand adults in the United States how much stress they had experienced in the past year and whether they believed stress was harming their health. Eight years later, the researchers found that high levels of stress increased the risk of dying by 43%…but only for those people who also believed that stress was harming their health.

Even more fascinating, people who reported high levels of stress but who did not believe their stress was harmful were not more likely to die. In fact, they had the lowest risk of death of anyone in the study, even lower than those with little stress. (Forbes, 6/3/15)

I know – it’s just one study, I don’t know much about their methods, and they were focused on a person’s likelihood of dying, not other outcomes.

But, still. It made me rest a bit easier.

“Reducing stress” is part of my CFS treatment plan, and is part of management plans for many other chronic illnesses. What does that really mean for me? Should I freak out if something stressful happens, or seems like it will be stressful? What if I become more stressed out about avoiding the stress? Try to “calm down”?

There’s a different way to approach it, I’ve found. These are some things I’ve begun doing that have helped me “reduce stress” to improve my conditions for managing CFS:

  1. Being choosy about possible stressors. If there are stressful things I can choose to eliminate or change, then I will do so. Do I have to attend a conference out of state? No? Then I won’t. Do I have to plan a crazy bachelorette party? Nope. I can also compromise. I can listen to recorded conference talks. I can have a low-key gathering and ask others to help out.
  2. Having all the feelings when stressful things happen. My tendency for most of my life was to enter into an escalating spiral of, “Oh no, I’m having a negative feeling about this event. Make it go away. I really don’t need to feel this way. I’m fine. I can just breathe deeply and not feel the bad thing.” As it turns out, emotional suppression is not so great. These days, I’m working on being more comfortable with having negative feelings, letting them happen, experiencing them, and letting them go instead of holding onto them or pushing them away.
  3. Accepting that some stress will happen. Yes, life involves stress – excitement, glee, shock, grief, obstacles, all of it. That’s why we take care of ourselves, which brings me to #4…
  4. Doing enjoyable things that are fun and relaxing. Because, why not?

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