The One Word You’re Saying That Could Actually Be Causing Anxiety

Photo: Stocksy/Jojo Jovanovic
You’re sitting at your desk, staring at a calendar filled with back-to-back meetings and deadlines, when your coworker comes over and asks how you’re doing. Do you respond: a) “Busy—in a good way” b) “Glad I started my bullet journal” or c) “Super stressed”?

If your default answer is the last option, you could be making things a whole lot harder on yourself—even if you really are stressing out. That’s because the words you speak and think can automatically trigger a biological response in your body that increases your edginess exponentially.

"Just saying that you’re stressed can [set] off a cascade of chemicals in the body and neurotransmitters in the brain that make [you] feel, well, completely stressed out."

“Just saying that you’re stressed can [set] off a cascade of chemicals in the body—epinephrine and cortisol—and neurotransmitters in the brain that make us feel, well, completely stressed out,” says Seth Swirsky, a clinical psychotherapist and author of 21 Ways to a Happier Depression. “Our hearts beat faster, our breathing becomes more rapid, our blood pressure goes up, we can’t think straight, and we’re filled with fear and anxiety.”

Gnarly as that may sound, it’s actually good news. It means you don’t need to quit your job and move to Bali (or otherwise drastically change your circumstances) to find peace. Instead, simply shifting your words and thought patterns might be enough to help you chill, no matter how crazy your to-do list gets. But where to start?

Here's how the connection between negative language and stress works, plus tips on breaking the cycle.

Photo: Stocksy/Sara K. Byrne
Photo: Stocksy/Sara K. Byrne

The brain-body connection

Here in the West, stress is often understood as the result of external events, but in other medical traditions, it’s considered an inside job.

“Ayurveda teaches us stress is really our perception of, or reaction to, something,” says Ayurvedic doctor Pratima Raichur. “It begins as a vibration in the level of the consciousness. Anything we repeat—which includes our belief patterns, our intentions, and our default languaging—is what we end up manifesting in our bodies and our lives.”

"Once the mind makes a decision that an event is stressful, the thought becomes our molecular reality."

It may sound woo woo, but biology backs up the belief that stress ultimately starts when you say that you’re stressed. “Once the mind makes a decision that an event is stressful, the thought becomes our molecular reality in the form of biochemicals called catecholamines,” says Raichur. “These are the hormones that prepare us for fight or flight. The brain, now aware of the crisis, signals the hypothalamus, which then activates the pituitary gland, which activates the adrenal glands. These hormonal secretions provide us with the familiar adrenaline rush symptomatic of the stress response.”

Obviously, this is a good thing if you’re, say, getting mugged. But if you’re constantly talking about how stressed out you are, then you’re putting yourself at risk for all kinds of health conditions related to adrenal burnout (a condition to which even Gwyneth’s vulnerable).

“It's through the combined and prolonged effects of these stress hormones on the immune system that thoughts and language have the capacity to make us ill,” says Raichur. “Issues from chronic stress response can include digestive complaints, changes in menstruation and fertility, headaches, chronic fatigue, and autoimmune disorders.”

When she puts it that way, venting doesn’t seem so harmless anymore, huh?

Photo: Stocksy/Simone Becchetti
Photo: Stocksy/Simone Becchetti

How to reduce stress through positive language

If you want to stay calm in the midst of chaos, says Raichur, you need to start by removing the word “stress” from your vocabulary and replacing it with more positive language instead. And the best way to do this is by practicing mindfulness.

“Cultivate awareness of your thoughts and emotions, identify your habits, find ways to let negativity go each day, and find gratitude,” she says. “Over time, this practice will start to shift the qualities of the vibration within your consciousness and ultimately alter the thoughts you think and the types of emotions those thoughts trigger.”

"Cultivate awareness of your thoughts and emotions, identify your habits, find ways to let negativity go each day, and find gratitude."

The old “fake it ‘til you make it” tactic definitely applies here: Research shows it really does help to feign happiness and positivity, even if you feel like things are falling apart. One recent study showed that those who were instructed to smile during a stressful task had a lower heart rate and reported more positive emotions than those who didn’t, while another proved optimistic thinkers have lower cortisol levels than pessimists.

And if you’re having trouble shutting off your internal chatter by facing it head-on, Swirsky recommends finding a healthy distraction instead. “The antidote to the frightful state that cortisol can put us in comes from taking our minds off our mind,” he says. Socialize at the gymmake a vision boardread a good book...anything that makes you genuinely happy will do the trick. Just as long as you've banned the “S” word from all conversation.

Originally published April 19, 2017; updated July 16, 2018.

Change your internal dialogue by adopting a new mantra—here’s how SoulCycle instructors give themselves pep talks. You could also try the one-minute de-stressing trick that Gabrielle Bernstein swears by.

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