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How stressing about stress is stressing you out

Stressing about your stress levels is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here’s why you need to tone it down.

08 April 2016
by Stefan de Clerk

We all know that too much stress is bad for us, but according to research, stressing about how bad stress is for us can actually make matters worse! However, it’s good to keep in mind that not all stress is bad for us, and that our behaviour when we are stressed has a great impact on how effectively we are able to deal with it.

Stressed about being stressed

An important study on stress was published in the European Heart Journal in 2013, revealing the work of a team of researchers from the Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health in France. This team had asked a group of London-based civil servants in 1991 how much they thought stress affected their health. 

Eighteen years later they had followed up with the same group and discovered that those who had fears about the negative impact of stress on their health were not only more stressed, but also showed an increased risk of coronary heart disease, compared to those who took stress in their stride. 

Fuel for negative thought

According to Cape Town-based clinical psychologist Carey Bremridge, how we deal with and manage stress comes down to our so-called cognitive distortions of the world around us. “A cognitive distortion is a thought that our mind uses to convince us of something that is not valid and for which there is no evidence,” Bremridge explains. “This thinking tends to lead to negative emotions, thoughts and feelings about ourselves and can be obsessive, as we tend to continually look for the evidence to prove ourselves right. We look for the evidence continually to show ourselves what a failure we are.”

To further illustrate her point, Bremridge uses the example of looking at the clock incessantly when we’re busy on a deadline, telling ourselves that we’re never going to finish, that we’re going to be fired if we don’t make the deadline.

“If we perceive tasks and responsibilities as ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’ and if we, as influential psychologist Albert Ellis puts it, ‘awfulise and catastrophise’ our inability to complete tasks as we had expected, we set ourselves up to experience negative stress,” warns Bremridge.

Not all stress is bad

Bremridge explains that stress only becomes a problem when it causes us to feel paralysed, demotivated and unable to perform our day-to-day functions or fulfil normal responsibilities.

However, not all stress is bad, and some stress can, in fact, be good for us. “Even pleasant experiences can cause stress,” explains Bremridge, “Stress is a normal, natural and essential part of life, living and personal growth. Some stress is actually good for us, as it keeps us feeling stimulated and invigorated, and is important for healthy functioning.” 

Beating stress with compassion

Even if we find ourselves under the weight of ‘bad’ stress, there are ways to turn the tide. “The answer is not simply to avoid stress – we can’t do this; the answer is how we manage the stress and how we learn to strike the balance between negative and positive stress,” says Bremridge.  

According to Bremridge, learning to strike this necessary balance comes down to learning to cultivate self-compassion: “We need to show compassion to ourselves and others when we discover our human frailty, when we make mistakes, drop the proverbial ball, or don’t make that deadline. We need to be mindful of the perception we have of the demands and requests that life and those around us place on us, and ensure that tasks are always placed into a realistic and appropriate perspective."

Read More: Stress Super Section