Debunking Stress Myths—How Much Do We Actually Know?

According to a study conducted in 2013 by Harris Interactive, Americans spend two stressful hours every week waiting for their computers. Stress is often known as the “silent killer” because people don’t take it seriously until it causes a serious issue. PEOPLEIMAGES/ISTOCK

This article, along with others to help you begin the journey toward a more fulfilling life, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: Mindfulness.

Are major physical problems the best indicators of chronic stress?
Stress can eventually manifest in many serious and threatening ways—including stroke, insomnia, heart palpitations and weight gain. But just because you aren't experiencing any of these problems doesn't mean that stress isn't taking a toll on you. Stress is often known as the "silent killer" because people don't take it seriously until it causes a serious issue. If you're stressed and think you don't have symptoms, there's a good chance it's still affecting your body. Chronic high-stress lifestyles can cause a buildup of symptoms not immediately associated with stress such as, migraines, changes in sex drive, muscle aches and even a weakened immune system, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Isn't a little bit of stress a good thing?
Stress, whether it be before a big exam or important work presentation, is often viewed as something that motivates us to work harder. Many carry the belief that being stressed pushes a greater desire to succeed—and therefore stress creates positive action. However, Andrew Bernstein, author of The Myth of Stress, argues that the motivation to work harder actually arises from stimulation and engagement. He uses the example of goal setting as a proper motivator. The goal of wanting to succeed keeps us engaged and energetic, while stress is just a negative and impending emotion. Bernstein believes, "If you're successful and stressed out, you're succeeding in spite of your stress, not because of it."

If I have a drink (or two) after a stressful day, will it help to unwind?
It's not uncommon to reach for a bottle at the end of a long day or week. But surprisingly, indulging in a few drinks to destress isn't working in your favor. A 2008 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism indicated that cortisol, a stress hormone, is actually released when alcohol is consumed. Instead of alleviating stress, alcohol only triggers it further. While our body self-regulates cortisol by way of the hypothalamus, excessive exposure to the hormone can cause depression and anxiety disorders, weight gain and hair loss.

Aren't stress and anxiety just different words for the same thing?
Though it's pretty normal to hear these words used interchangeably, medically there is a very important distinction between stress and anxiety. Stress is a reaction to a specific stimulus or situation, known as a stressor. When the stressor is no longer a factor—when you meet the deadline, escape the danger or achieve your goal—the stress disappears. Anxiety is a condition wherein, despite the fact that the stressors are no longer immediate, stress continues.

This article was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition: Mindfulness. For more on learning how to live in the moment, banish stress and become more in tune with yourself, pick up a copy today.

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