Stress: Myth or reality?
Theory suggests controlling stress by controlling one's thoughts
For the average person, there are too many stressors — school, work, that driver who cut you off — that seem to snowball out of control. But what if someone told you stress is a myth? That people are wrong to believe that external stressors cause stress?
That’s exactly the message psychologist Andrew Bernstein emphasizes in his Psychology Today articles and book, “The Myth of Stress: Where Stress Really Comes From and How to Live a Happier and Healthier Life.” For Bernstein, the truth of stress is that it starts in a person’s mind and that people can learn to conquer the effects of external stressors once they alter these fundamental beliefs.
But is he right?
Cognitive behavior dressed in new clothes
Psychologists and University of Phoenix College of Social Sciences instructors, David Engstrom, PhD, ABPP, and Christine Karper, PhD, reviewed Bernstein’s myth concept and agree he offers some valid points.
“He seems to be following a very cognitive-behavioral approach to his dissection of stress,” observes Karper. "When we allow our thoughts to ‘catastrophize’ our situations, we're allowing our beliefs to trigger the stress response.”
Engstrom, an Arizona-based clinical health psychologist specializing in stress management, also notes the similarity of Bernstein’s idea to cognitive behavioral theory, which emphasizes that thoughts cause our behaviors and emotions, not external stimuli. “This is an old idea and he’s basically putting it in new clothes,” says Engstrom. “He's saying stressors have no direct effect on people and that is absolutely true.”
Engstrom further explains that stressors aren't responsible for creating dry mouth or high blood pressure — the actual physiological stress — people experience. It's more likely the negative thoughts, or the “misfortune telling” ideas, that trigger stress. For example, he says, two people can be exposed to the same stressor, like divorce, and one handles it well while the other falls apart.
Bernstein also says there's no one-size-fits-all stress management technique, like a long walk on the beach, that dismantles every person’s stress-inducing beliefs, Engstrom and Karper say. But that's where they stop supporting Bernstein’s myth of stress.
“What he's also saying is if a person somehow changes his or her mindset, that he or she can somehow ignore those external stressors and I don’t think that’s true at all,” says Engstrom. “That idea is a myth.”
Karper adds that some stressors, such as extreme cold, may still cause stress regardless of how people perceive the external stressors. “Psychological stressors are not the only type of stressors that exist.”
What this myth theory overlooks
Karper also believes reappraising one’s beliefs about stressors is a powerful way to minimize stress, but is not a panacea. In fact, one myth she’d like to bust is that stress is a bad thing.
“Stress helps us identify when we are in trouble — physically, emotionally, spiritually and even environmentally,” explains Karper. “If we dismiss stress as something we create simply by our thoughts and that we just need to re-think the event, I think the author has missed an important messaging system that is built in not just for our survival, but also for our potential to flourish and thrive.”