Stress is seemingly everywhere, a reaction to woes as disparate as war-induced trauma and the battle against rush-hour traffic. Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil say too much of it can be hazardous to our health, and we’re inundated with stress-management advice. Life coaches talk about working toward emotional fitness, as if we can perform Pilates on our psyches. But some ideas about stress and its risks are simply wrong.
1. Getting enough sleep, exercising and eating right can reduce stress.
To borrow from Bill Clinton, the answer depends on what the meaning of the word “stress” is. We use the term to refer to unsettling conditions or situations, such as unemployment, as well as the experience of being unsettled — feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
While it’s true that taking care of ourselves can help us feel good, steamed broccoli and 30 minutes on the elliptical won’t come close to mitigating stress. If that’s our goal, we’d be better off defining stress in terms of those unsettling conditions rather than our internal states.
Instead, Americans seem to be preoccupied with managing the effects of stress. The message from everyone — doctors, personal trainers, psychotherapists, even our mothers — is that if we can fix our stressed-out selves, we can handle pretty much anything. It’s a solution that neglects the causes of stress and one that’s often available only to the middle class on up. Eating her fruits and veggies, even if she can get them at a decent price in her neighborhood, won’t do much for the single mother who has three children, an hour-long, multi-bus commute and an angry boss who can easily find another employee if this one shows up late.
2. Stress makes people more vulnerable to illness.
The media reports that chronic stress can “shrink our brains” and even kill us. Physicians sometimes inflate the connection between stress and cardiovascular disease, and psychologists can overemphasize the link between stress and depression — so we end up thinking that any amount of stress may harm our health.
But when psychology professors Suzanne Segerstrom and Gregory Miller analyzed more than 300 studies on stress and immune system functioning, they didn’t find any evidence that stress makes otherwise healthy people susceptible to illness. In fact, they concluded that the immune system is extremely flexible and can handle even fairly large amounts of stress without going out of whack. This is less true for people who are under chronic stress, for the elderly or for people who are already ill. But stress can produce fairly dramatic changes in the immune system without necessarily causing people to get sick.
3. Most people who are exposed to traumatic events develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 2004, as the Iraq war was heating up, a Navy psychiatrist said: “We do not want to pathologize combat stress . . . Individuals are not patient . . . (8Combat stress is) a relatively normal reaction by a normal person to an abnormal, horrific situation.” If soldiers with PTSD aren’t patients, why do military personnel continue to describe PTSD as a stress injury or a stress illness? Comparing the psychological effects of war to broken bones or the flu certainly makes them seem easier to cure.