Top Psychologists Say Stress & Anxiety Are Healthy. Why You Don’t Need To Be Happy 24/7
Several years ago at a wellness-oriented festival, I attended a workshop on manifestation and how to live my best life. The two-hour-long event included touching heart-to-hearts as well as many practical tips and tricks on visualization and working through stress and frustration. There was much that I took away from the workshop that day, though one idea in particular really struck a chord. It was part of the closing message from the host that tied everything together and the uttering of these few words instantly transformed me in a very profound way. They are words I come back to time and time again. Words that I do my best to pass along to others in need. They are also words that were mirrored in a recent publication from the American Psychological Association (APA) on why stress and anxiety are actually good things. Let me explain.
“Suffering results from our resistance to what is.”
Sounds simple enough, right? However, I encourage you to pause for a moment and consider the implications of truly taking that sentiment on board. To put it in other words: we can eliminate the bulk of our anger, frustration and sadness, simply by accepting what is and not perpetuating a state of mind where we believe things ought to be different.
If we hold onto the idea that things aren’t happening the way they’re supposed to, we find ourselves entering a kind of victim state dominated either by a sense of lacking what we feel is rightfully ours but we don’t have, or by the burden of having forced upon us circumstances that we don’t feel we should be having to deal with. Truth be told, these take far more energy than simply accepting what is, whether you like it or not.
Now, that’s not to say that acceptance of what is is synonymous with settling. I cannot emphasize that enough. In fact, far from it! But the only way we can get from where we are to where we want to be is by being honest with ourselves about where we are; about where Point A actually is. Point A might be a daily life riddled with anxiety and that’s OK.
Anxiety gets a bad rap. Often referred to as a “condition” or “disorder,” it is frequently thought of as a problem to be “treated,” “overcome” or “conquered” either medically or via one of a multitude of other holistic therapies. We may find ourselves defining the very fabric of our personality by the grip it has over our lives and much like depression, it hits us the hardest when we can’t seem to pinpoint the cause. On paper, life is great; so why, then, do the panic attacks and palpitations linger around every corner?
This is why a recent publication from the APA really hit home for me, because it offered a refreshing perspective on stress and anxiety. The report describes stress and anxiety as warning bells rather than disorders. They can be considered signs that change is required and serve as a rather useful catalyst of sorts.
See, when we look at what stress actually is, we can define it as pressure to perform at the very upper limit of our abilities. If we only have a given number of hours in a day, pushing ourselves to the brink either physically or mentally infringes on downtime, diet, sleep and social interactions—all of which are vital to a balanced life and mental well-being. Rather than beating yourself up wondering why you’re feeling stressed, take a step back and listen to your intuition. Get down on paper how you’re actually spending your time and you’ll likely find that one or more aspects of your well-being are being compromised. The stress is there for a reason, but it’s unfortunate that we’re told that we must simply power through it rather than ask for help or cut back on obligations. Short term stress is unavoidable, but if it’s chronic, it’s time to reassess.
Stress and anxiety go hand in hand, but anxiety is slightly different in that it’s more of an internal alarm system. According to Dr. Lisa Damour, a contributor to The New York Times and the author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, anxiety is “an internal alarm system, likely handed down by evolution, that alerts us to threats.” Worry, fear, panic and alarm are all sensations that arise due to apprehension about an outcome we suspect might occur in the future.
We learn by experience, right? So if walking down a dark alley got you into a bad situation in the past, it’s likely that you’ll avoid it in future. That’s simply your brain doing its job in keeping you alert and safe. If you didn’t get the score you wanted on the test because you didn’t study well enough, you’re likely to feel more anxious about the next one.
The number of diagnoses of anxiety-related conditions is on the increase and I suspect that even if you don’t struggle with it yourself, you likely know of someone in your life who does. In this era of “McMindfulness,” we are bombarded with messages about how happiness ought to be the goal; we should stop at nothing to achieve a 24/7 joyous state of mind. Firstly, it’s ridiculous to suggest that as a valid objective, which not only ignores but robs us of our human nature. Secondly, if where you are right now is lightyears away from “happy” (which—by the way—is ephemeral and what we really would be better off hoping for is, actually, inner peace), of course it will ignite emotions such as stress and anxiety, because of how blatantly far away from it you feel right this moment! Hence, the birth of a multi-billion dollar industry.
If stress and anxiety are on top of the list of your most-used words, know that the reason you are feeling those things is that your body is trying to tell you something. Rather than trying to learn how best to cope with them, investigate whether they are alarm bells calling you to change your life in some way. Also, let go of the idea that you need to be happy all the time. It’s physically impossible and something we have been spoon-fed to perpetuate the self-help industry. Know that part of the deal of life on this planet is experiencing an array of ups and downs, but navigating them all with inner peace is possible; it starts with acceptance of what is.
Do you suffer from stress and anxiety? How could you reframe them in your mind to catalyze change?
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