Why stressing over stress may not be good for you

Do you know that the way you look at stress influences your biology more than the stress itself? 

Do you know that if you see stress as something negative, you’re more likely to be harmed by it?

Yes, if you find yourself constantly stressing over stress you may be at a greater risk of suffering from the negative physiological effects of stress! 

In a study done by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, it was found that people who ‘believed’ that stress was bad for their health and something to be avoided were more likely to suffer from the negative physiological effects of stress. 

Conversely, people who were told not to view stress negatively but as a natural reaction of the body in the face of life challenges were less likely to suffer from the ill health effects of stress.

The people who ‘believed’ that stress is nothing but their body preparing them to meet the challenge at hand were unlikely to suffer from the negative health effects of stress!

Read that last line again and mull over it for a while.

‘Believed’? What on earth does that even mean? How can a non-tangible and abstract thing as a ‘belief’ influence our biology? Does this mean that everything that we knew about stress and its negative health effects was wrong?

Far from it. This discovery only reveals that there’s more to stress than we thought. Even more humbling is the realization that we have absolutely no idea how and why this phenomenon called ‘belief’ has such a powerful impact on our biology. 

After all, it’s only a belief that makes placebos work and let’s not forget that there are countless accounts of people who’ve claimed that they successfully recovered from terminal diseases like cancer and even genetic diseases, solely through the power of belief. 

Many might dismiss them as anecdotes, but there’s no smoke without fire.

Belief is nothing but an interpretation of how the mind sees the world. It is defined simply as information that we consider to be true. Materially, it doesn’t even exist and yet it influences the behaviour of material things like the human body!

stressing over stress beliefs
Your beliefs are like computer software programs- pieces of information that not only govern your behaviour but seem to also influence your biology.

For about a decade, the health psychologist who did this study told people “Stress is bad” “Avoid stress” “Stress will make you sick” and this actually compounded their stress-related problems. 

But when she tried a different approach, when she decided to break the convention, when she tried to understand stress more deeply she realized that it may not be that bad after all. 

By delving deep into the mechanics of stress and pondering over its psychological causes, you’ll understand that it is really nothing but a defence mechanism.

Eventually, you’ll be cool with it and you’ll no longer fuss over it. You’ll then have automatically developed the belief that stress is out there to help you and not to harm you, ergo, no adverse health effects of stress.

Or… you can continue listening to the so-called experts who tell you that worry, stress, anxiety, and depression are mental disorders that can only be fixed by drugs. If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog you know that I’m blatantly against using medications for fixing psychological problems, except in extreme circumstances. 

Just like stress, if people actually bother to understand the real causes of worry, anxiety, and depression and look into the holistic psychological conditions that cause these reactions, they’ll realize that these too are useful defence mechanisms of the mind. 

Instead of blindly believing everything that the studies say, people need to take the pains of thinking and observing psychological phenomena on their own, or with the help of an exceptionally talented behavioural expert. 

Psychology is not like the other hard sciences where objective evidence is enough to arrive at the truth. It places great importance on subjective experiences and only you can look inside your own head.

When it comes to the mind, there’s a lot that we know and a lot more that we don’t know.

There are two ways of knowing the truth about mental phenomena- objective evidence and subjective experience. In the case of human subjectivity, objective evidence is simply not enough and in some cases impossible to provide.

For example, if you were an alien who visited earth to study human behaviour objectively, I could never possibly prove to you that I dream, let alone convince you that my dreams often have meanings that give me tremendous insights into my own psyche. 

All this would sound like nonsense to you because you’re incapable of experiencing human subjectivity.

Believe it or not, many people out there are just like that alien. They dismiss the importance of human subjectivity and classify everything for which objective evidence can’t be provided as ‘false’. 

Belief is a subjective mental phenomenon that we know very little about. Thanks to psychology, we know how we acquire beliefs and how it shapes our personality but how it influences our biology remains a mystery.