Seems like we’re all stressed out these days. From the timeless frustrations of work and family life to the utter craziness that is modern politics and online dating, it can feel like we’re drowning in stress.
And while there are certainly many unavoidable reasons to be stressed, the bigger problem is this:
Much of our stress is actually self-inflicted. And we don’t even know we’re doing it.
Obviously that’s not true for everyone, but the simple fact of the matter is that many of us have gotten into habits that, no matter how helpful they look on the surface, come with shockingly high levels of stress as a side effect.
The good news is that with a little introspection and some perseverance, you can begin to undo much of the unnecessary stress in your life. And in addition to being a little happier and more relaxed, you’ll find you have a lot more energy to effectively deal with the unavoidable stressors in your life.
Here are 3 hidden reasons you’re stressed out all the time and what you can do to eliminate them.
1. Staying busy is your antidepressant.
Many people are either afraid or unwilling to address the true causes of their suffering and unhappiness.
This is partly because it’s not always clear. Depression, for instance, has many partial and interactive causes, from genetic vulnerabilities and inflammatory autoimmune responses to ruminative thinking styles and social stressors. So it can be understandably hard to completely understand all the causes and contributors to your suffering.
But for many of us, despite this complexity, there are at least some reasonably clear causes of unhappiness that we could work to improve:
- Nearly everyone with depression or anxiety would benefit from more regular exercise.
- Most people with low self-esteem and self-worth issues would benefit from working to improve their habits of negative self-talk.
- Almost anyone who struggles to regulate their emotions would benefit from better sleep habits.
- Many of those who struggle with unresolved grief could benefit from talking to a counselor or therapist.
- Nearly everyone with anger issues would benefit from a regular mindfulness practice.
The point is, there are usually plenty of reasonable ways to address the underlying causes of our suffering. The problem is, they’re hard:
- Exercising five days a week, month in and month out can be a challenge, especially if you’ve got physical or environmental constraints working against you.
- Changing habitual patterns of negative self-talk takes a ton of work, patience, and self-awareness.
- Committing to better sleep habits often requires giving up the pleasures of sleeping in, staying up for just one more episode, or heavy drinking on the weekends.
So I get it. There are real challenges.
But it’s how we respond to these challenges that matter. For many people, the challenges of addressing core causes feels like too much. And so they resort to coping mechanisms and “treating the symptoms”:
- The socially anxious person avoids going out so they don’t have to worry about what other people may or may not be thinking about them.
- The grief-stricken widower opens another bottle of whiskey to numb out the pain.
- The guy with anger issues spends an hour and a half venting to buddies about how terrible his boss is because that’s a lot easier than self-reflection.
All of these feel good in the moment, but ultimately, they’re distractions—the opportunity cost of which is less time and energy to devote to the admittedly hard work of addressing the real causes of our suffering.
And one of the most common distraction habits we all fall into is busyness. And a subtle side effect of constant busyness is chronic stress.
See, no matter what your struggle, you probably know on some level that you need to do the difficult work of addressing the core causes. Which means, in times of stillness and quiet, your mind will be telling you this—sometimes screaming it at you. But if you’re afraid to listen and address it, you’re simply going to feel even worse about yourself.
Consequently, many people who are unhappy are afraid to be alone with their own minds. And so, to avoid the anxiety that comes from being alone with their own thoughts, they create schedules and routines that keep them constantly occupied, stimulated, and busy.
Like most distraction techniques, constant busyness “works” on a superficial level. But it never addresses any of the true causes and it has some pretty nasty side effects, one of the worst of which is chronic stress.
When you’re constantly busy, you but a tremendous toll on both your body and mind.
When you don’t make time for genuine relaxation and downtime and stillness, you pay a price. And that price is stress.
Your brain interprets constant business as a low-level form of threat or challenge. If there’s always something you “have to do,” your brain is going to keep you in a state of perpetual low to moderate fight or flight. And among other things, this means a steady stream of stress hormones like cortisol as well as chronic inflammation. Both of which are fine in small doses now and then, but they wreak havoc on our bodies when they’re constant.
Bottom line: If you’re chronically stressed out, there’s a good chance you’re keeping yourself artificially busy as a coping mechanism for some other underlying problem. But it’s very possible that the side effects are outweighing the benefits.
If you’re unsure, here’s the litmus test: Try being less busy for a while and see what happens. If you find that it’s extremely hard and all sorts of painful emotions and thoughts start bubbling to the surface, that’s a sign that you’re using busyness as a Band-Aid.
2. You try to manage your stress instead of your stressors.
The biggest myth we all believe about chronic stress is that you need to get better at “stress management.”
But stress management is actually a terrible solution to the problem of chronics stress because you’re already stressed! It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.
Of course, some form of Band-Aid to stop the bleeding is important if you happen to get shot. But Band-Aids should not be the primary strategy we talk about for dealing with gunshot wounds—we should work like hell to avoid getting shot in the first place!
See, when we make stress management our first-line strategy, we distract ourselves from really looking at the true cause of our stress, the stressor itself.
A stressor is the thing that causes a stress response.
If you’re always stressed, the real solution is to fix the original cause of the stress not the feeling of stress itself.
For example, if you’re constantly stressed at work, you could try and work on doing more deep breathing exercises throughout your day. And maybe your stress level will decrease a little. But no amount of deep breathing exercises will change the fact that you’re still terrible at saying “no” to taking on too much work.
Feeling stressed at work is the messenger trying to tell you that something about how you work is deeply wrong. Over-reliance on stress management techniques is effectively shooting the messenger.
Stress isn’t the problem. It’s the constant stream of stressors in your life and your unwillingness to manage them that’s the problem.
There’s nothing wrong per se with stress management techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness. The problem arises when you get into the habit of thinking about chronic stress only in terms of how you feel—your stress response.
The far more important part of the equation is the stressors that are causing the stress in the first place.
Learn to manage your stressors and your stress will largely take care of itself.
3. You lack assertiveness.
Assertiveness may be the most underrated idea in all of mental health and wellbeing. Not the least of which because it’s one of the best weapons we have against chronic stress.
Assertiveness means clarifying and pursuing your values. We are assertive when we take the time to distinguish passing whims and desires from meaningful goals and aspirations and then make the decision to pursue what really matters even if it’s at the expense of what feels good or comfortable in the moment.
- You’re assertive when you resist that second helping of ice-cream because you’re choosing a value (health) over a feeling (desire for more ice-cream).
- You’re assertive when you tell your family that you won’t be hosting Thanksgiving anymore because you’re choosing a value (lack of stress for you and your immediate family) over a feeling (fear that your extended family members will think badly of you).
- You’re assertive when you ask for a promotion at work because you’re choosing a value (being compensated fairly for your abilities) over a feeling (nervousness over what might happen if your request is denied).
In short, assertiveness is the willingness to make decisions based on your values, rather than your feelings. And this matters a tremendous amount when it comes to chronic stress.
To illustrate why, consider two people: John and Grace. Both of them were recently diagnosed with high blood pressure and cholesterol. And both were told that, unless they make some major changes to their lifestyle and health, they are at serious risk for a life-threatening cardiovascular episode like a heart attack or stroke.
While John and Grace are similar in many dimensions from intelligence and education to social support and financial resources, they differ dramatically in their level of assertiveness:
- John has a hard time saying no to people because he’s terrified of being judged. His particular lack of assertiveness in this area leads to always taking on more projects and favors and tasks than he’s capable of. As a result, he constantly feels inadequate and guilty, in addition to being chronically stressed out.
- Grace, on the other hand, is quite assertive. And while she doesn’t like the feeling of saying no to people, and sometimes feels embarrassed asking for what she really wants, she does it anyway because she knows it’s the right thing to do.
Now, if you had to guess, who’s going to handle the major stressor of a serious health condition better, John or Grace? Obviously Grace!
- It’s hard to make time to exercise and prepare healthier meals when you’re constantly overwhelmed and stressed because you can’t say no to anything or anyone.
- It’s hard to feel confident that you’re up to the challenge of making major lifestyle changes when you’re constantly feeling bad about yourself for not finishing the endless stream of work you pile on yourself.
Clearly, John’s lack of assertiveness is a major liability when it comes to handling significant stress. But there’s even more to it than that…
In addition to not having to deal with all the extra stress that comes from lacking assertiveness, Grace will likely reap the benefits of being assertive:
- Because she’s assertive, she’ll be more likely to ask her family and friends for support as she tries to make some serious changes to her life.
- Because she’s assertive, she’ll have more confidence and self-efficacy as she undertakes major changes.
- Because she’s assertive, she’ll be more willing to take the uncomfortable step to join the gym even though she hasn’t been in ages and is self-conscious about her weight.
Assertiveness is a double antidote to chronic stress: Not only does it help shield and buffer you from stress you already have, but it also gives you strength and resilience to avoid unnecessary stress in the first place.
When you have the courage and strength to make decisions that move you closer to your values rather than running away from your fears, you’re in a far better position to avoid chronic stress.
Learn to be more assertive and you’ll be well prepared to handle any stressors that come your way.
All you need to know
Much of our stress is self-inflicted, the result of habits and defense mechanisms that have long outlived their usefulness. Work to undo these habits, and you’ll be getting at the root of the problem, which means genuine and lasting stress relief.
Stop using busyness to distract from emotional pain.
Practice managing your stressors rather than your stress.
Learn to be assertive.
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Anna Shvets.