Why worrying about stress is making it worse – and how to stop it

Are you stressed about being stressed? It’s a seriously unhealthy pattern to get into, says Dr Elissa Epel. But how do we break out of it?

With all the chat about burnout, breakdowns and their impact on everything from our menstrual health to our digestive issues, it’s natural to think of stress as a bad, terrible thing. And it’s true in a sense: long-term, chronic stress is bad for us. 

But here’s the thing: not all stress is created equal. And when we worry about all stress, this can become an issue in itself. 

Why? Because the way you view stress impacts how it actually feels. 

“Our beliefs shape our stress responses,” says Dr Elissa Epel, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “When we believe stress is harmful to us, we have more of a threat response. If we view stress as an attack, we’ll continue to put our bodies into fight-or-flight mode and push our systems into a state of fear and vigilance. And when that response happens, full-blown or even half-blown, with each stressful or unexpected event that comes along, our bodies no longer quickly ‘come down’ from the stress. We recover more slowly.”

Essentially, worrying about stress just increases the negative impact it has on the body. While you absolutely should be reducing levels of chronic stress, panicking about occasional stressors or avoiding all stress at all costs out of fear isn’t the best way forward. 

A little bit of stress can be good for us, in fact. That’s something we need to bear in mind, and it’s how we start to reassess our view of stress. In other words, it’s about thinking: ‘Yes, this is a bit stressful, but is it a massive crisis? Do I really need to be panicking about this?’

“Take the threat out of stress,” Dr Epel advises. “For example, when a stressful situation arises, look at it from a self-distanced perspective rather than a self-immersed perspective. Ask yourself if this situation is worth all this stress: is it going to affect you one year from now? Remind yourself this is just one area of your life, and you are more than your performance in this one area. Remember other things you care about, values that you embody. 

“If you can ‘unhook’ yourself from the natural response of overblowing the importance of the stressful event, you can feel it as less of a toxic threat, and put things in perspective.”

That can sound easier said than done, especially if you’re in the cycle of stressing about a looming event. How can we break out of that? 

Dr Epel suggests viewing these moments as challenges rather than crises. Be more lion, rather than gazelle. And remember all the things you’ve overcome, all the stress you’ve survived and all the tools you have in your kit to tackle whatever obstacle is in your path. 

“Too often, we’re responding to the stressors that pop up over the course of a day as though they’re a survival threat to fight off or run from, rather than a meal to take down,” she writes in her book, The Seven-Day Stress Prescription

“Instead of why me, think: try me. Think about all the hard situations you have survived already – all that experience and hard-earned wisdom are embodied in you. Your stress mindset shapes your thoughts and experience of reality – including your physiological responses to events. Approach the situation with the mindset of, ‘What else do you have for me, universe?’ and see how different that may feel.”

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Viewing stressful times as challenges rather than massive dangers makes our stress response better for us. Psychologist Wendy Mendes has done research on this, and found that when people have a ‘challenge mindset’ when it comes to stressful moments, they have a more positive stress response: more blood pumping from the heart (cardiac output) instead of a narrowing of the blood vessels. It’s even been found that feeling challenged rather than threatened before a stressor is linked to improved longevity and vitality. 

All that means is that we need to stop fearing and worrying about anything that feels remotely stressful. Chronic, long-term, unending stress is not healthy. But a little stress is nothing to panic over. 

The Seven-Day Stress Prescription by Dr Elissa Epel is available now (Penguin Life, £9.99)

Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.

Main image: Getty; Stylist

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