No, I'm not psychic, but I've got the receipts: Recently, Well+Good conducted a survey of nearly 2,500 readers about stress and anxiety and—spoiler alert—almost every single person who took it experiences both. Ninety-five percent of survey takers say they're stressed out, and 91 percent say they experience anxiety.
But here's the thing: While a lot of people said that they talk about their stress and anxiety, a fair amount (nearly 20 percent!) said they did not. And of those people who choose to stay silent, one in five said it was because they felt their struggles weren't "a big deal." Many others said they were too "embarrassed" to talk about those issues as well.
It seems that when stress and anxiety are talked in general, it's obvious that they're serious issues. (How many times have you heard that stress can literally kill you?) But when it comes to our own personal experiences, a lot of us just assume it's something everyone just has to deal with on their own. What's up with that?
Fear of opening up
"One reason why I think people minimize stress and anxiety is because it feels better—at least initially—to downplay it rather than acknowledge it," says integrative psychotherapist Alison Stone, LCSW. "We have grown, collectively, to use avoidance and distraction as preferred coping mechanisms to actually sitting in our discomfort."
Another reason why many people minimize the stress and anxiety in their lives, says Stone, is because they assume their partner and friends are stressed and anxious, too—so unloading on them just doesn't seem right. And yes, there is truth to that, Stone says (just look at how many W+G readers said they were stressed!). "But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of supporting you at the same time."
Just because the majority of people are experiencing stress and anxiety doesn't make those feels any less valid. "No matter how hard things are in your life, feeling heard, seen, and witnessed makes everything easier," says holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, MD, a panelist on an upcoming Well+Good TALKS event on the topic.
In fact, Stone adds, being vulnerable with your loved ones can actually strengthen your relationship. "People are more likely to be forthcoming about their own struggles once they feel less alone in their experience," she says. In other words, you talking about the stress and anxiety in your life gives them the space to talk about theirs—and you can shoulder each others' burden.
How work culture fuels the problem
But getting vulnerable can be even harder at work—an environment where you're basically supposed to be on your A-game 24/7. In the same survey of W+G readers, 78 percent of respondents shared that work was a major source of stress, and 64 percent said work triggered their anxiety. Yet being stressed at work is touted as the ideal—with many tech companies encouraging crazy-long hours and startup culture seeming to glorify people who burn the candle at both ends as "doers."
"We’re in a really whack situation with work culture right now," Dr. Vora says. "Everyone is burnt out and there’s a silent shame of, 'If I find myself burned out, maybe I’m worse than other people.'"
She points out that many people are afraid to talk to their manager about how stressed they are because they're worried it will make them look like they can't do their job well. And that fear is often justified, Dr. Vora says. "I think about this a lot when it comes to hourly wage workers who are in a position where, if they don’t show up to their shift, they get fired," she says. Instead, people suffer in silence doing the best they can to keep their head above water.
Breaking the silence
Even if someone does acknowledge that they're overly stressed out or anxious, it can be difficult to figure out when it qualifies as "serious enough" to seek help. "It's absolutely a spectrum," says Dr. Vora. The short version: When either reaches a point where it's difficult to function on a day-to-day basis, that's when you need to make that extra move to seek help, Dr. Vora says.
And help doesn't have to automatically mean therapy, Dr. Vora says. Simple acts of focusing what is in your control, she says, can make a big difference in your day-to-day stress and anxiety management (think: getting enough sleep, taking a deep breath, having a support system.) "For some people experiencing low or medium grade anxiety or stress, helpful interventions can include meditation, exercise, cooking, or drawing," adds Stone.
Above all, don't be afraid to talk about what you're going through with people you trust. Speaking up will help—and is the first step toward changing the culture from viewing stress and anxiety as mere facts of life to something that is not okay.
Something else about stress you need to know: it's contagious, but there is a silver lining about how anxiety can actually help you.
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