Healthy Mind

Why ‘It Could Always Be Worse’ Is Actually the Worst Thing You Can Tell Yourself for Stress Management

Natalie Arroyo Camacho

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When you feel stressed, you might try to self-soothe by telling yourself “it could be worse.” For instance, let’s say that work is really stressful—like to the point where your dread for it is keeping you up at night, and you don't have the time or energy to do anything outside of work. In this case, you might find yourself saying something like, “Well, at least I have a job.” As positive as this mental framing might seem, using stress quantity as a point of comparison—even if you're simply comparing it to yourself—is actually one of the least-recommended strategies experts recommend taking for effective stress management.

Working to mentally minimize your own stress—whether using the mindset that it could be worse and thus you should be grateful, or a perceived reality that other people have "more" stress so yours is somehow less worthy—isn’t at all helpful for your health because you’re not actually dealing with the root cause of the issue. Instead, you're more so invalidating your authentic experience of feeling stressed in the first place.

The pervasiveness of stress and how to best deal with it is a focus of the latest episode of The Well+Good Podcast. During the discussion about how to manage stress, Melinda Ring, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine, and Dora Kamau, mindfulness and meditation practitioner, and host of the Sunday Scaries by Headspace podcast, provide insight on how we can better cope with our stress—no matter the level or root cause—and why managing it is integral to our well-being.

Listen to the full episode here:

Comparing your stress to others’ isn't productive because it deflects from what you’re experiencing personally, which can, in turn, lead you to believe that the stress isn’t as pervasive as you initially thought. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, says Dr. Ring. “Stress can affect just about every aspect of mental and physical well-being,” she says.

“Stress can affect just about every aspect of mental and physical well-being.” Melinda Ring, MD

That reality supports the importance of reducing—or at the very least managing—stress, no matter where in your life it originates. This is true whether you feel “a lot” or “a little” bit of stress, because stress management is something we could all benefit from practicing.

The good news is Dr. Ring says the first step in reducing your stress levels is quite simple: Simply acknowledge that it nearly inevitably occurs in your life. This is because, she adds, the mind-body connection is apparent when it comes to healing. “There are real, chemical changes that happen in our body that affect the way our mind works. [Similarly], our mental state affects how our body works,” she adds. So, if you don't mentally accept your stress and start working on ways to reverse it, your mind may actually contribute to making matters worse.

The same way that stress can have an effect on inflammation (like when your feet try to tell you you’re stressed), hormone levels, and the gut microbiome, it can also exacerbate chronic pain issues and fatigue, adds Dr. Ring, noting that stress-related fatigue doesn’t get better after a good night’s sleep. “It's sort of that sense of feeling depleted, [which results in] changes in sex drive and libido [as well as] gastrointestinal issues.”

Those aforementioned internal symptoms also have a way of manifesting externally in myriad ways, says Dr. Ring, citing examples like like skin issues and hair loss. “It's really a head-to-toe, inside-outside problem,” she says. All that said, it’s clear that not treating your initial stress might make matters worse and lead to even more stress.

Once you embrace that comparing stress is bad and you're focused on treating your own, you might try a few remedies including stress-relief products, like CBD oil, compression sleeping masks, and a scalp massager; acupressure, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice that brings stress-relief as you tap pressure points in five key points on your body; or a somatic release exercise that helps you destress in one minute. If you get the sense that your stress levels have grown unmanageable, though, it’s best to seek the help of a medical professional who can work with you on a diagnosis and treatment plan.

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