Lately, we keep hearing that stress wreaks havoc in our lives. Physically, stress hinders the immune system, causes high blood pressure and heart disease. Mentally, it’s linked to chronic fatigue, depression, and even memory loss. But, did you know that sometimes how we react to stress can be more harmful than what caused the stress? So ask yourself: how do you handle stress?
Stress vs. Reaction
What do we mean when we say that the reaction to stress can be more harmful than the stress itself? Well, let’s look at two different reactions to the same event.
John finds out that the promotion he was expecting went to another person. He was counting on this promotion to help him pay for the house he just bought. He is shocked, angry, and worried about his future. So, he has words with his boss. Then, he leaves work and goes to the bar to get a drink to calm down. He’s so upset he has a bit too many and gets home late. Still angry, he lashes out at his wife. Then he falls asleep in front of the TV after eating a bag of chips.
The next morning, John wakes up feeling ill. His wife, furious, yells at him about her own career problems. John goes to work and things are awkward with his boss. He realizes he may have blown his chances at a future promotion with his employer.
Sean also wanted that promotion and was also upset. But instead of going to the bar, he hit the gym to release the tension. He was also late when he got home, but instead of yelling at his wife, he talked with her. And he appreciated her efforts to try to comfort him. Exhausted, he went to bed early.
The next day, he wakes up feeling rested. He enjoys the special breakfast his wife made to cheer him up. At work, he goes straight to his boss to discuss things. They outline how Sean can contribute to the company and advance towards his next career goal. His boss announces he sees great things in Sean’s future. Sean feels relieved and motivated.
Obviously, this story is fictional. Yet it shows how some reactions can hurt relationships and careers. Over time, these habits can even hurt our health. Like John, many of us can identify when our reactions help or hurt us. But, we may not be aware that they are triggered by stress and that they can be replaced by more positive actions.
How We Learn to Handle Stress
Most people learn stress-coping mechanisms from their families. Maybe your dad yelled at you after a bad day at work. Or you caught your mom drowning her sorrows in a tub of ice cream. Or your big brother taught you that you could hide from all problems inside a video game.
Our second teacher, the media, teaches us even more inefficient ways to deal with problems. How many times does the man in the movie go to the bar at the slightest frustration? How many commercials show women who are super-duper happy just because they’re shopping?
Common sense dictates that these coping mechanisms do not serve us well. In the short term, they may numb us to our immediate problems. But in the long term, they harm our health, our finances, and our relationships.
How Well do You Handle Stress?
Luckily, as science evolves, we are learning better ways to handle stress. We now know that exercise makes us better able to bounce back from life’s challenges. Spending time with friends and family is good for our mental health. New stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, can make us more resilient.
The first step in learning how to better handle stress is to identify what we’re doing now. Think you handle stress well? Take our quiz and find out!