20 August 2019

Here's why stress and anxiety aren't necessarily that bad for us

Expert research suggests that when people expect to feel happy and relaxed all the time, it could be a recipe for disappointment.

Stress and anxiety are often associated with feelings of negativity, despair and panic.

Although this can have detrimental effects on an individual's well-being, psychologists believe they can play a helpful role in the lives of people living with these conditions. 

According to a presentation presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, many Americans now feel stressed about being anxious.

"Unfortunately, by the time someone reaches out to a professional for help, stress and anxiety have already built to unhealthy levels," according to Lisa Damour, PhD, a private-practice psychologist who presented at the convention. 

An inoculating function

Damour added that stress occurs when people overexert themselves or their circumstances require them to push themselves beyond what they are capable of. Stress can arise from both good and bad situations.

"It is important for psychologists to share our knowledge about stress with broad audiences: that stress is given in daily life, that working at the edge of our abilities often builds those capacities and that moderate levels of stress can have an inoculating function, which leads to higher than average resilience when we are faced with new difficulties," said Damour. 

Anxiety is another mental health issue with negative connotations. "As all psychologists know, anxiety is an internal alarm system, likely handed down by evolution, that alerts us to threats both external – such as a driver swerving in a nearby lane – and internal – such as when we've procrastinated too long and it's time to get started on our work," according to Damour. 

When viewing anxiety as helpful and protective, it allows people to use their anxiety to their advantage. For example, Damour says that she tells teenagers she works with to pay attention if they start to feel anxious at parties because their nerves may be alerting them to a potential problem.

Stress can become unhealthy

"Similarly, if a client shares that she's worried about an upcoming test for which she has yet to study, I am quick to reassure her that she is having the right reaction and that she'll feel better as soon as she hits the books," she added. 

She also noted that what she says does not mean that stress and anxiety are not harmful, as stress can become unhealthy if it is chronic (no possibility of recovery) or if it is traumatic (psychologically catastrophic).

"In other words, stress causes harm when it exceeds any level that a person can reasonably absorb or use to build psychological strength," Damour says. "Likewise, anxiety becomes unhealthy when its alarm makes no sense. Sometimes people feel routinely anxious for no reason at all. At other times, the alarm is totally out of proportion to the threat, such as when a student has a panic attack over a minor quiz."

Providing counter-messaging

Damour also added that when stress and anxiety go untreated, it could result in additional psychological and medical symptoms including depression or an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, which is why she urges anyone feeling overwhelmed by stress and anxiety to learn stress management strategies. "In recent years, mindfulness techniques have also emerged as an effective approach to addressing both stress and anxiety," said Damour. 

She urged psychologists to play an active role in providing counter-messaging to the "happiness industry" or those wellness companies that are trying to sell the idea that most of the time people should be happy, calm and relaxed.

Damour says that this is a dangerous idea because it is unnecessary and unachievable. "If you are under the impression that you should always be joyful, your day-to-day experience may ultimately turn out to be pretty miserable."

Image credit: iStock


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