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The cycle of being worried about stress


Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash


Stress is an unavoidable part of life. The pressure to deal with stress and constant messaging about how bad it is for your health has started a new problem – stressing out about the experience of stress.


Let’s say you’re experiencing headaches or other symptoms which have been ongoing for some time and recently they’ve been getting worse. You reach out for help and hear “Have you been stressed out?”, “You need to manage your stress better because it’s making your symptoms worse!” Not the most helpful thing to hear when you’re already worried about your symptoms.


Initially you were worried about your symptoms and they were a source of stress, but now you start to worry about the fact you’re stressed out and how that will affect your headaches or symptoms.


When a storm starts to brew, there are always opposing forces that create the winds and make the storm bigger. We can think of what is going on here in a similar way. There is the more conscious part of you that is trying hard not to be stressed, and the opposing more automatic part that can’t help but be stressed because of the consequences and added pressure. Two opposing states that are the perfect recipe for a storm.


The stronger the opposing forces, the bigger and stronger the storm gets. The more you try not to be stressed, the more consuming the stress becomes. The storm sweeps you away and you find yourself struggling between the attempt to manage stress and feeling more stressed as a result.


The worry about stress and its consequences means the body interprets stress as more threatening than it is. It becomes a feared event that we need to quickly try and alleviate. In this high-alert mode, the body reacts in line with the perceived stress, rather than the actual stressor itself, which has a physiological impact. Excessively worrying about the negative impact of the stress doubles the risk of heart disease, regardless of how much stress is actually experienced [1].


Situations that weren’t originally considered “stressful” can also get pulled in. You may overthink about whether you’re doing too much, if you’re overexerting yourself, what if this is too much stress for you? The brain becomes preoccupied with trying to reduce stress as much as possible that we become more sensitive to it over time and underestimate our ability to cope. The entire process starts draining your capacity and burns you out, not leaving much left to keep you going.


This isn’t to say that we don’t need to manage stress, but getting stuck in a cycle of worrying about it and fearing stress does us no favours. It’s okay to feel stressed and it’s a normal response to situations. The expectation that you should be able to manage your stress all the time or that it needs to consistently be at a minimal level is inaccurate and does not serve you.


Acknowledge how you feel and find what helps to give you back some capacity in difficult moments rather than solely focusing on preventing and avoiding. You may find this guide helpful on Reclaiming Life From Chronic Stress & Illness, which includes experiential exercises to get you started.


References

[1] Nabi, H., Kivimäki, M., Batty, G. D., Shipley, M. J., Britton, A., Brunner, E. J., ... & Singh-Manoux, A. (2013). Increased risk of coronary heart disease among individuals reporting adverse impact of stress on their health: the Whitehall II prospective cohort study. European heart journal, 34(34), 2697-2705.

[WS1]Insert link to Georgia’s previous blog on the impact of stress

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