For many people, stress is an enigma and has different definitions. A person can feel and experience stress or talk about stressful events, but what is stress from a medical standpoint?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is an evolutionary mechanism meant to deal with life’s numerous demands and stressors. These stressors can range from very minor to major, depending on the individual.
Facts about stress include that it can come from within (intrinsic) or from outside a person (extrinsic). To better understand stress and how it impacts people, nine common myths about stress must be debunked.
Myth #1: Stress is the same for everyone.
Fact: Stress is an extremely subjective experience.
How does stress affect different people? Unfortunately, the answer is not simple. Stress is very personal and subjective. A stressor for one person may not bother another person at all. Stress falls into several distinct categories. Stress categories include:
- Typical stress that is generated from work, school, family issues, and day-to-day responsibilities
- Stress that happens suddenly from a life change like divorce, losing a job or a cancer diagnosis
- Stress from experiencing a traumatic event like a mass shooting, natural disaster, and many others
What is the impact of stress? The impact of stress is also very subjective. People may deal with certain types of stress better than others, or they may bounce back more quickly, depending on the type of stress. Resilience to stress may be attributable to genetics, though research supporting this notion is slim. Generally speaking, everyday stress is easier for people to deal with than stress experienced from a traumatic event, such as post-traumatic stress.
Myth #2: Stress is everywhere and can’t be avoided.
Fact: Stress can be avoided or managed in many circumstances.
Learning how to avoid stress is difficult, and sometimes people cannot avoid stress, particularly when the cause of stress is extrinsic. In some instances, avoiding stress creates more stress. Nevertheless, there are effective ways to overcome stress.
First, there are some stressors that can be avoided. For instance, college-aged people are infamous for waiting until the last minute to start an assignment. This behavior creates unnecessary stress and can be avoided with effective time management skills and having a clear list of priorities.
There are many effective strategies to manage stress that people use every day. Some of these strategies include, but are not limited to:
- Understanding what stress looks and feels like
- Having a support system, including friends, family or co-workers
- Including health care professionals in a support system
- Exercising each day (30 minutes of walking, for example), which can reduce stress
- Setting clear, realistic and measurable goals
- Setting aside time each day for mental health and relaxation
Myth #3: Stress is always bad.
Fact: Sometimes, stress can be good.
Is there good stress? According to experts at the University of California Berkeley, stress can sometimes be good. Certain levels of stress can make a person more alert and improve both their behaviors and cognition. Too little stress can cause people to develop depression or become bored. Herein lies the difference between good and bad stress: the length of time an individual experiences stress. Acute or short-term stress can be good for individuals, while long-term or chronic stress can become debilitating and have a negative effect on memory and other processes.
Myth #4: No symptoms means no stress.
Fact: Just because a person does not show signs or symptoms of stress does not mean they aren’t stressed.
In some individuals, stress may easily appear via behavioral changes or specifically after traumatic events. In other individuals, it may be extremely difficult to determine if a person is stressed through their behavior. Such individuals likely appear normal and hide their stress well, but underneath are mentally struggling. Stress is typically reflected mentally and emotionally.
Myth #5: Only major stress symptoms require attention.
Fact: Even minor stress symptoms should be addressed.
Stress can quickly go from acute to chronic if symptoms are not managed. Chronic stress has been negatively linked to many physical problems. From a physiological perspective, stress hormones have a real impact on how well a person functions in everyday life.
Research has shown that an excess of stress hormones can alter:
- The immune system
- The cardiovascular system
- The endocrine system
- The gastrointestinal system
In other words, stress hormones are capable of producing a whole-body response, even if an individual shows minor symptoms of stress. Typical treatments for stress include learning stress management techniques, prescription medication, and behavioral therapy.
Myth #6: Stress causes grey hair.
Fact: Grey hair has other causes than stress.
It has long been a myth that grey hair is caused by high-stress levels. However, this is not supported by research. First, hair does not just turn grey. The pigment responsible for hair color is produced less as people age. Thus, age is a large factor in the development of grey hair, as well as a person’s genetic predisposition.
Some other illnesses and factors that may cause grey hair include:
- A vitamin deficiency
- Tumor growth
- Alopecia areata (hair loss)
- Heart disease
- Low bone mass
- Cigarette smoking
Therefore, evidence suggests that stress is not a large factor in developing grey hair, if at all.
Myth #7: Stress causes cancer.
Fact: There are many factors that cause cancer. Cancer cannot solely be attributed to stress.
According to the National Cancer Institute, links between stress and cancer are weak at best. Some studies have found a link between certain psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer. It should be stated, though, that just because the risk is higher for developing a disease, does not mean a person will definitely develop that disease.
However, it is possible that with certain cancers, stress has indirect effects, like altering the immune system, which is tasked with fighting cancer. So, while studies have not determined whether stress directly causes cancer, the indirect effects on cancer development should still be considered for patients with cancer.
Myth #8: Stress is a motivator.
Fact: Stress may motivate some people, but the benefits of motivation do not outweigh the overall negative toll on health.
In a survey conducted in 2014, Chinese community health workers were asked about their work stress and motivation in relation to job satisfaction. Using two different metrics, this study found that work-related stress had a negative association with job satisfaction.
For some people, short-term stress can be a motivating factor, particularly acute stress. Acute stress helps certain individuals perform tasks like meeting important deadlines, and increases an individual’s alertness. Additionally, periods of acute stress may help people perform their best and think creatively about how to solve problems. In these cases, stress is warranted as a motivating force.
However, chronic stress, which has long-term negative implications, is less of a motivating factor and more of a burden. The benefits of acute stress are outweighed by the long-term effects of chronic stress on a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Myth #9: Drinking alcohol is an effective way to cope with stress.
Fact: Drinking alcohol can be even more detrimental for a person trying to cope with stress.
According to the University of Utah, sometimes having a drink is a reasonable stress reliever. It depends on the setting. For instance, if someone is stressed and goes out for a drink with friends, the act of being with friends is usually the stress reliever, rather than the drink itself.
If a person is at home and uses alcohol for stress relief or to fall asleep, then problems can arise. One reason why alcohol should not be used to alleviate stress is that alcohol impacts parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and balance.
Additionally, even though a person may fall asleep easier after a drink or two, later in the night they may wake up frequently or awake too early as REM sleep cycles are affected. Finding other methods to relieve stress besides alcohol and drugs is critical.
If you or a loved one struggles with stress management and substance abuse, help is available at The Recovery Village. Check out our tips on how to relieve stress without using drugs or alcohol, or reach out to a representative today for more information on addiction treatment.
The National Cancer Institute. “Psychological Stress and Cancer.” December 2012. Accessed June 9, 2019.
NIH News in Health. “Feeling Stressed? Stress Relief Might Help Your Health.” December 2014. Accessed June 9, 2019.
National Institute on Mental Health. “5 Things You Should Know About Stress.” (n.d.) Accessed June 9, 2019.
Li, Li; et. al. “Work stress, work motivation and their effects on job satisfaction in community health workers: a cross-sectional survey in China.” BMJ Open, June 5, 2014. Accessed June 9, 2019.
Sanders, Robert. “Researchers find out why some stress is good for you.” University of California Berkeley, April 16, 2013. Accessed June 9, 2019.
Shmerling, Robert. “Why does hair turn grey?” Harvard Health Publishing, September 18, 2017. Accessed June 9, 2019.
University of Utah. “Is it Okay to Drink Alcohol to Release Stress?” October 16, 2014. Accessed June 9, 2019.
Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The impact of stress on body function: A review.” Excli Journal, July 21, 2017. Accessed June 9, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.