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Stress is a Problem – And Playing Semantics Doesn’t Change That

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I came across an article earlier this week about the Five Myths of Stress. As someone with expertise in the stress domain, I typically enjoy reading articles that serve to bust myths for the general public. However, as I read the article I was dismayed to find that the “myths” are really not myths at all. So, in the spirit of providing accurate information, I have decided to offer my rebuttal.

Myth #1 – Getting enough sleep, exercising and eating right can reduce stress.

Um, well, what the author claims is a myth is actually 100 percent accurate. She tries to argue that sleep, exercise, and nutrition “help us feel good” but that they “won’t come close to mitigating stress.” She then uses the “example of the single mother who has three children, an hour-long commute and an angry boss” as the prototypical individual for whom sleep, exercise and nutrition will not mitigate stress.

Unfortunately, the article completely misses the boat when it comes to actually explaining the stress process. Stress is a complex interaction between our personal resources and environmental demands (or stressors). Every contemporary, reputable, empirically-validated stress theory emphasizes this point, whether we are referring to the Job Demands-Resource Model, the Demands-Control Model, the Personal Resource Allocation Framework or other perspectives. A search of scholarly articles in this domain will reveal a myriad of studies that show that internal (e.g., energy, attention) and external resources (e.g., control, social support) are both key elements that can increase resilience to stressors (i.e., mitigate stress).

Hence, a logical approach for all people is to focus on shoring up their own personal resources (both internal and external) and to focus on ways to minimize the impact of stressors in the environment. For the example the author provides in her piece, a feasible way to go about mitigating the harmful effects of stress would be to (1) leverage any and all forms of social support available (external resources); (2) try to make intelligent decisions regarding sleep, exercise, and nutrition (internal resources) and (3) start looking for a new job, maybe one a little bit closer to home (stressors).

Myth # 2: Stress makes people more vulnerable to illness.

This is where the author starts playing semantics with the issue of stress. She argues that a meta-analysis conducted by Suzanne Segerstrom and Gregory Miller found no evidence that “stress makes otherwise healthy people susceptible to illness.” However, a review of that article clearly points out that “chronic stressors were associated with suppression of both cellular and humoral measures” (in other words, chronic stress does result in immune system suppression). And while the author tries to sweep that under the rug in a later part of her paragraph, that is what researchers, in general, study – chronic stress. Going back to the models and frameworks I mentioned above, empirical research typically assesses people’s general (i.e., chronic) exposure to demands, not moment-by-moment exposure. Even the PBS article she links to in her own article emphasizes the killer nature of “prolonged exposure to stress.” Hence, one stressful event is not likely to cause immune system suppression, but if those stressful events are a common part of daily life, then they will take a toll on over time.

Myth #3: Most people exposed to traumatic events develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

First, I’ve never heard any reputable source indicate that “most people” develop post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a traumatic event. The Mayo Clinic even specifies that “some people” get post-traumatic stress disorder and that predictors of whether one will get PSTD after a traumatic experience include: your inherited mental health risks, such as an increased risk of anxiety and depression; your life experiences, including the amount and severity of trauma you've gone through since early childhood; the inherited aspects of your personality — often called your temperament and the way your brain regulates the chemicals and hormones your body releases in response to stress.

Furthermore, the trauma that triggers PSTD, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health involves “seeing or living through a dangerous event.” I don’t know what poll reported that 60 percent of U.S. adults “say they have had at least one traumatic experience,” but I would like to know how that poll defined a “traumatic experience.” The loss of a loved one to cancer can be defined as a traumatic experience, but it is not one that would likely result in PSTD, because it does not involve danger to the person who experiences it. Hence, PSTD is a potential negative consequence that results from traumatic events that involve potential danger to oneself. Not everybody is going to get PSTD after such an event, and reputable sources don’t suggest that.

Myth #4: Women and men respond to stress differently because of genetic and hormonal differences.

To prove this myth is common, the author cites John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Really? Are we really going to formulate an entire “myth” around a popular press book that has no real scientific underpinnings? Beyond that particular book, I’m not really aware of any other widespread propagation of this particular myth. Hence, while I guess I will say this would indeed be a myth, it certainly isn’t one rears its head often.

Myth #5: If women learn to cope better with stress, they’ll be able to resolve work-family conflict.

I will grant the author one point here. She argues that “too much of the work-life balance debate is focused on women’s illusory choices.” The work-life interface is not just an issue for working mothers; it’s an issue for everyone, and it’s even broader than just looking at the work-family relationship. It’s about competing role demands and being able to flexibly manage those demands.

But the issue is not about stress causing conflict between work and non-work roles, the issue is about conflict between roles causing stress – and that is not a myth. Hundreds of empirical articles have demonstrated this phenomenon. I’m not aware of anyone suggesting that coping with stress will reduce work-family conflict. Instead, the reverse is much more common – managing work-life conflict will reduce stress. And though the author argues that outdated polices are the problem (I agree they are part of the problem), even with maximal flexibility, workers have to take ownership over managing (or coping with) their workplace flexibility, which involves ensuring that they have the appropriate personal resources at their disposal to do so.

This gets back to the first myth. It is not about the environment alone. It is about how we, as people, transact with our environment. It is about the internal and external resources we bring to our interactions with life demands and how we choose to leverage our resources in managing or responding to those demands. So, our choice is either to:

  1. Whine about stress and blame our employer while doing nothing; or
  2. Learn to better manage our personal resources so we can be as resilient to stress as possible AND be as proactive as possible at reducing the stressors in our lives.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/liquidnight / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Matt Grawitch published on April 10, 2013 6:30 AM.

Having a Ball After the Award Ceremony was the previous entry in this blog.

The Modern Skill Set Employees Need to Succeed, But Few Have is the next entry in this blog.

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