At some point or another in our lives, we will experience some kind of stress. While most of it is short-lived and goes away, sometimes the stress we experience becomes chronic, reinforcing our distressed state. The experience of stress is almost inevitable, but what are the sort of things that could increase our stress levels, leading to chronic stress?
People generally carry with them a set of beliefs about life and how things work. These beliefs were obtained from our past experiences, the way we were brought up, values, culture, circle of friends and even social media. These beliefs could be at the heart of stress generation.
When faced with stress, people have two types of thoughts about it: a primary appraisal (just how great of a problem the stress is for you) and a secondary appraisal (your perceived ability to cope with it). These are the cognitive components of stress. They in turn trigger the other stress components like physical ( chest pains) and emotional ( anger) symptoms. Individuals will attempt to cope with the stress by responding to it. Sometimes this coping behaviour is helpful and the stress subsides. But other times, the behaviour is unhelpful and the stress is reinforced, making your appraisal of the situation and stress more and more negative. This will create a vicious cycle that will maintain the stress.
What are the most common beliefs held that could underlie stress?
Perfectionism: believing that you have to do things perfectly at all times and costs. The world we live in does not allow for such perfectionism to be attained and more often than not, we become disappointed with our lack of success in doing things just the way we wanted. This disappointment causes states of helplessness and hopelessness which are potential sources of stress. In the long term, these states could be held responsible for deeper mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Doing it all: holding the belief that it is completely achievable for you to do everything you planned to do. With only 24 hours in a day and us living in such a fast-paced world with demands constantly being put on us, it comes as no surprise that most often than not, we fail to accomplish everything we have set to in any given day. Again, this causes frustration and disappointment which could be potentially damaging to your mental well-being.
Proving yourself: At work, we are constantly put under pressure, always having to stay on top of things, and respond appropriately to all the demands put on us. Even at home, the situation does not look brighter. We have expectations and responsibilities being put on us, whether it is about maintaining a liveable environment, our parenting style, the dynamics in our family or even the general affairs of keeping a house. With the need to prove your worth even in front of those who should unconditionally support you, stress kicks in when you are unable to fulfil others’ expectations of you.
No relaxation: fear of procrastination, of not finishing your tasks on time, often leaves one feeling like they do not deserve a break. Simply not taking a break to enjoy yourself due to the belief that a break is undeserved could be a potential source of stress. Our bodies and minds cannot cope with us actively working at all times, so our system enters stress mode. It is going downhill from there.
People pleaser: it is embedded in our thinking that we need to work to earn other people’s acceptance and love. For that reason, we sometimes try and please everybody at the cost of our own happiness. We forget that we can say no, and we certainly forget that it is simply unattainable to please everybody. Feeling unloved and also overworked from concentrating all our energy on other people’s needs can be a damaging source of stress.
Doing it on your own: similar to a Christmas dinner situation, where one person is in charge of it all, we have a foolish desire to be in control of the things going on around us at all times. Sometimes we fail to accept that it is acceptable to request help from others and our desperate attempt at doing everything often leaves us frustrated and disappointed. This of course gives us a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that we are incapable of doing anything. Stress kicks in.
What have we learnt about stress?
Whilst it’s true that some level of stress in our lives is unavoidable and unsolvable, and from time to time we will have a level of stress that’s quite intense, it is also true that the beliefs we hold about ourselves and about stress itself, can make our experience worse. These beliefs also influence our responses to stress and our coping strategies, oftentimes making an already stressful situation worse. The good news is that we can unlearn these beliefs, we can learn to challenge them, swapping them for alternative, more realistic beliefs, in turn leading to more helpful responses.
Ioana Rotaru is a London psychotherapist specialising in working with people with histories of childhood emotional neglect and trauma who now want to improve their relationship with themselves and others. If you would like to explore addressing any of the issues in this article, please contact Ioana at email@example.com for a free 15 minutes consultation about how therapy might help.