Stress has been blamed for so many health consequences: weight gain, insomnia,
hair loss, even heart attacks. But there’s a great deal of myth-conceptions and misinformation about what it can do to our wellbeing. We look at five of them.
Myth 1: Stress is a great motivator.
MYTHBUSTER: Some people use stress as motivation, but that can backfire. “I look at stress like somebody might look at salt in your food,” says leading mind-body expert and psychiatrist, Professor Amit Sood. “Your food might be bland with zero salt. But you don’t want too much salt, because it’ll overpower the taste of everything else.”
Stress has an optimal level, above which creativity, productivity, attention and, of course, happiness are all depleted. The perfect amount is different for everyone, Sood says, and can change for the same person depending on the circumstances. “A ‘good’ stressor – a great adventure or a passion project – could feel more negative if you’re tired or not eating well or pushing too hard,” says stress coach Dr Heidi Hanna, who trains executives on how to manage energy levels during periods of stress.
TIP: Step back. If stress is draining your energy and focus, take a break, close your eyes, and clear your mind. If you can, head outside for a walk – even 10 minutes can raise productivity.
Myth 2: Stress leads to ulcers.
MYTHBUSTER: Most ulcers are caused by infection with H. pylori bacteria or by long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen. Stress can, however, contribute to ulcers by increasing your immune system’s vulnerability to infections, Hanna says. Plus, stress creates inflammation in the body, which can add to the chronic aches and pains you might take NSAIDs for, as well as exacerbate other medical conditions, including asthma, arthritis and diabetes.
TIP: Use your physical health as an incentive to limit stress. “When faced with a stressful scenario, ask yourself: Is this worth having a heart attack over? Is this worth getting dementia over?” Sood suggests. Putting the stressor in perspective
may remind you to stay calm.
Myth 3: Most people exposed to severe stress develop PTSD.
MYTHBUSTER: Some 10 to 15 per cent of people who live through traumatic events experience post-traumatic stress disorder, Sood says. Factors that increase a person’s risk of developing the condition include a past history of mental illness or substance abuse, lack of support after a traumatic event, and added stress in the wake of the trauma.
TIP: Social support is key, mentions Sood. Talk with friends or family, or seek professional help from a support group or therapist. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start when looking for help, but organizations such as BeyondBlue (at beyondblue.org.au or 1300 22 4636) can help or make an appointment with your GP. Putting in place positive strategies is linked to a lower risk of developing PTSD.
Myth 4: Alcohol soothes stress.
MYTHBUSTER: Alcohol stimulates production of the stress hormone cortisol and can disrupt sleep, making stress worse. Some people think that if a little alcohol takes the edge off, more might be even better, says psychiatrist Dr Karina Davidson. But in addition to risking dependency, increasing alcohol consumption in the hopes of managing stress only taxes the body more, as higher levels of cortisol may eventually damage the nervous system (not to mention the liver, heart and other organs).
TIP: If you drink, stick to one alcoholic beverage a day whether you’re stressed or not, or opt for healthier stress-busters like your favorite music, a good book, or a close friend who always makes you laugh, says Sood.
Myth 5: Stress is an inevitable consequence of modern life.
MYTHBUSTER: Stressful events may be unavoidable, but your reactions determine whether or not you feel stress. Imagine this often-cited example: An experienced skier approaches an icy slope with excitement, while an inexperienced skier instead feels fear. There’s only one way down the mountain, but the two skiers have different impressions of the descent.
In the same way, people armed with effective relaxation tools can navigate the “icy slopes” of modern life. If you’re stuck in traffic, for example, “the stress you feel is optional,” Sood says.
TIP: Accept your circumstances and reframe your emotional response to them. Regularly practising mindfulness builds resilience, meaning you’ll be less likely to lose your cool when you’re stressed. In a traffic jam, breathe deeply, notice how your body feels, and become aware of everything you see and hear. Until the cars start moving again, you’ll feel calmer than if you let your mind wander.