Are You Making Your Stress Worse?
6 common responses to stress that can backfire
Life is stressful. But some people seem to let stress roll off them like water, while others seem to swallow it whole and let it chew them up from the inside.
"Stress is not the problem, our response to stress is what robs us of our health, happiness and potential for success, " writes Heidi Hanna, PhD, author of “Stressaholic: 5 Steps to Transform Your Relationship With Stress.” According to the American Institute of Stress (Hanna’s a member), “stress is the basic cause of 60 percent of all human illness and disease.”
Here are six common responses to stress that can make it worse.
Neglecting your body
"Being healthy on the inside helps you cope better with whatever is happening outside," says Hanna. While it’s important to take care of yourself when you’re feeling good so you have the fortitude to face whatever stress comes your way, it’s just as important to make physical health a priority when times are tough.
A survey by National Public Radio, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public health found that of the seven most common responses to stress, six were physical: 70 percent of respondents said they slept less, 40 percent ate less, 43 percent were less active, 41 percent slept more, 39 percent ate more and 33 percent watched more TV or played video games.
The fix: If your physical health is suffering, make it a priority. If you can’t quite face the gym, take a walk outside, do some yoga, spend some time on deep breathing. These steps may help you sleep better, too. Make dinner plans with friends so you don’t skip meals or have ice cream for dinner.
Trying to multitask
One of the most common life stressors is having too much to do. And one of the most common approaches to dealing with an overbooked schedule is trying to get more done by doing several things at once.
This is an energy drain, according to Hanna. What’s more, multitasking actually isn’t possible — what you’re really doing is forcing your brain to quickly shift attention back and forth between separate tasks. And it doesn’t even help. Studies show that people who multitask tend to make more mistakes and perform less effectively.
The fix: Prioritize your to-do list so you feel confident that you’re getting your most important tasks done first. Then learn how to keep your attention on one thing at a time. Mindfulness practices like meditation can help bolster your ability to focus and stay on task.
Burning the midnight oil
Staying up into the wee hours to get everything done may work once in a while, but it's no long-term solution. No matter what time you turn in after putting a project to bed, your alarm clock is going to go off at the same time the next morning, which means you’re going to be sleep-deprived and less able to get the next day's to-do list done.
If you make a habit of burning the midnight oil, you’re at risk of becoming chronically sleep deprived. "Sleep is critical for brain performance," says Hanna. Lack of shuteye also makes you more sensitive to stress.
The fix: Know how much sleep you need to feel rested — for most people that’s at least seven or eight hours — and set a bedtime that allows you to get enough zzz's. Follow a bedtime routine that helps you relax before you turn in, and shut down your phone or other device well before bed to help keep insomnia away.
Working through lunch
Skipping meals is clearly a bad idea. But so is eating at your desk or in the car. It’s just another form of multitasking. Plus, the competitive, get-things-done attitude that's keeping you at your desk or prompting you to survive on drive-through fast food can bump up levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which not only interferes with digestion but ultimately harms your your health.
The fix: On low-pressure days, make a regular lunch break a priority. In a true time crunch, rather than eating and working at the same time, Hanna advises taking a shorter lunch break and focusing entirely on eating and relaxing during that time.
Not giving yourself a break
Hanna calls this behavior the "as soon as" syndrome — you hear that voice inside say, "As soon as I finish just one more thing, I'll take a walk/hang with my family/read my book/get a snack.” But staying on task for hours on end isn’t always a smart way to go about getting things done. According to Hanna, humans are hard wired to have periods of peak performance alternating with periods of recovery. When we don’t take breaks, especially if that means we’re sitting for long periods, she says, too little oxygen gets cycled to the brain, cortisol keeps pumping and stress levels never have a chance to go back to normal.
The fix: Don’t rely on instinct to tell you when to take a break. Set an alarm on your phone or computer to remind you to get up every hour. Walk around, take some slow, deep breaths, stretch a bit. Just two minutes can be enough.
Keeping to yourself
Your social life may be the first thing to suffer when other obligations suck up all your time. The same is true if you’re dealing with a specific situation that’s causing you to feel too anxious or blue to be around people. In either case, isolating yourself for too long can significantly bump up stress and cause the physical problems, such as body-wide inflammation, associated with chronically high levels of cortisol.
"The brain requires a sense of connection in order to function at its best,” explains Hanna. “If you isolate yourself when you're stressed, you're creating an even greater stress response."
The fix: During busy times, it’s fine to downsize your social calendar, but don't delete it. If you can’t connect with a friend or loved one in person, give them a call. If you’re facing something emotionally shattering, know that one of the best ways to deal with trauma or sadness is to connect with other people. Social support can do wonders.