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12 Stress “Facts” Psychologists Need You to Stop Believing

People have a lot of mistaken assumptions about stress—from how common it is to how dangerous it can be. Let's set the record straight on these facts about stress.

How bad could it be?

The word stress gets thrown about in casual conversation every day, but stress can be a serious health problem—and people tend to carry more stress than they realize. The 2019 Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association revealed that although stress levels haven’t changed significantly over the past few years, Americans were experiencing more stress about specific issues that year. And over half of the adults in the survey said they could use more support. It’s helpful to know the following stress “facts” psychologists want you to stop believing. (And make sure you know the signs and symptoms of stress.)

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If you ignore stress, it will go away

It is common for people to try to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach with stress, says Jessica Rohlfing Pryor, PhD, a clinical lecturer in the department of psychology at Northwestern University. This is harmful to your body and well-being, Dr. Pryor says, and it potentially puts you at risk for problems such as heart disease, gastrointestinal conditions, reproductive issues, sleep problems, weight gain, cognitive impairment, and mood disorders. “I often tell my clients that compartmentalizing stress is akin to trying to put water in a cardboard box: It will leak out in one way or another.”

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Willpower can overcome stress

You may have heard people say to someone with stress: “Oh, just get over it,” or “Pull yourself together.” But stress is not something you can just “get over,” according to John Mayer, MD. people need coping mechanisms and lifestyle changes to manage stress, he says. Here are some tips for managing stress.

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Stress is all in your mind

Another one of the misconceptions about stress is that it only impacts your mental wellbeing. Stress is closely linked to mental health in two major ways: It can make mental health problems worse, and it can be caused by mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. However, stress can also have an impact on physical health. “I have seen stress be the cause of very unusual ailments that one would not normally associate with stress,” says Dr. Mayer. Sore throats, ringing ears, dizziness, muscle aches, bloating, heart disease, and nervous shakes may all be exacerbated by or linked to stress. Don’t miss the signs you are headed for a nervous breakdown.

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You can put off managing stress

Stress can’t wait. “In my practice, I work with a considerable number of high-functioning professionals, and I have now come to expect them to commit to taking care of themselves after the busy season or their next professional deadline,” says Pryor. “The thing is, we cannot make up for stress periods similarly to how we now know we cannot make up for lost sleep. It is important to maintain good self-care practices because of this.”

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Stress won’t interfere with your thought process

While stress isn’t a psychiatric diagnosis, it can lead to distorted or paranoid thinking in people who are prone to those mental health issues, says Dr. Mayer. (Once you get these facts about stress straight, make sure you watch out for these signs that you’re more stressed than you realize.)

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Stress is the same for everybody

Like all mental health issues, there is no “one size fits all.” In fact, quite the opposite is true, says Dr. Mayer. “Stress is idiosyncratic, which is why there are so many varieties of physical manifestation.” Whether you get stressed about your finances, your career, your relationship or having people over for dinner, your stress triggers are unique to you. Everyone responds to stress in their own way, too. Some people’s responses are emotional, others are physical, and others are a combination of the two.

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Stress is a motivator

People often say that stress is a motivator, but this is antiquated thinking, says Dr. Mayer. “Research has shown that the best motivators are internal motivation, not external motivators. Stress as a motivator is temporary, thus ineffective.” It’s important to distinguish between stress and stimulus. Setting goals, figuring out how to overcome obstacles, and pushing yourself to succeed are stimulating, and that isn’t the same as stress. If you know someone who seems to thrive under pressure, consider that they’re succeeding in spite of stress, and not because of it.

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Stress is good for you

While mild stress in certain situations may be beneficial in very particular circumstances, such as “mild performance anxiety” before a speech, presentation, or performance, which can help a person be alert and energized, it’s dangerous to put a positive spin on all types of stress. When your stress has reached a level that it has an adverse effect on your overall health, your job, your family, or your relationships, it is time to seek help. If stress is constant and prolonged, it develops into chronic stress, warns Pryor.

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Stress is inevitable

Life does come with unavoidable stressors, but we shouldn’t expect to get stressed simply because we are alive. “The key is how we cope with the daily bombardment of stress,” says Dr.Mayer. It is possible to take steps to manage your stress, to make it less likely to overwhelm you. Being aware of your stress triggers is another great stress management tip, as it lets you plan ahead, take all necessary precautions, and put self-care mechanisms in place. But avoid these ways to reduce stress that might actually backfire.

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Stress is a choice

Certain choices you make may lead to stress in your life, but it’s dangerous to label stress as a choice. This can add to stigma surrounding mental health issues. And remember, everybody has different stress triggers and responds to stress differently. It might be easy for one person to tell themselves not to get stressed, while someone else would become stressed regardless of any personal pep talks. If you are stressed, don’t beat yourself up about it—just make the choice to take action and relieve yourself of stress using proven expert-approved methods.

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Stress cannot be cured

It’s true that there is no catch-all cure for stress, and chronic stress can take time to subside. “Chronic stress, which is constant and persists over an extended period of time, can be debilitating and overwhelming,” says the American Psychological Association. But even people with chronic stress can manage stressors and may be able to reduce stress through coping mechanisms and making healthy lifestyle choices. Talk therapies, medication, ecotherapy, and various complementary and alternative therapies are possible treatment methods. Check out these expert tips for reducing stress.

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Only medication is effective in treating stress

People do take medication for stress relief—and find it effective—but it’s not the only treatment option. In fact, research shows that the best course of treatment for those who need treatment for stress is the combination of therapy and medications, says Dr. Mayer. A therapist may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you understand your thought patterns, recognize your trigger points and identify positive actions you can take, or mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and yoga with a particular focus on reducing stress. Now that you know these common facts about stress that people confuse, learn about these health myths that need to die.

Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on April 10, 2020