Stress Reframed

Hair pulling stress - Stress Reframed

For the last three or four months, I have been involved in a teacher training program that has basically sucked most if not all of the life out of me. Last night marked the final teachback—the final opportunity for me to teach a lesson in front of my trainers for evaluation.

Needless to say, or maybe it needs to be said, I have spent these last few months curled up in a little ball of stress, culminating in last night when two valiums did not mitigate either the chest pains or the numbness in my right arm (not my left—I was not having a heart attack).

So, imagine my surprise when I finish my online session and open The New York Times and find an article entitled, “The Contrarians on Stress: It Can Be Good for You.

I’m sorry. Are they serious?? Are they for real??

I’ve been sick for months with chronic stress from this training, not to mention having to do all my other jobs in the meantime, and these people want me to believe this is all good for me? So, of course, I had to read the article, if for no other reason than to say, “No, you are wrong.”

They begin with what they call, “MISCONCEPTION NO. 1 Stress is usually caused by having too much work,” arguing that boredom can be as stressful as too much work. OK. While I am no fan of boredom, I would first argue that boredom is an excellent breeding ground for creativity. Second, a little boredom right now would be more than welcome—an opportunity to simply stare into space, to do nothing, to go nowhere, to make my mind a complete blank. Like hitting a reset button.

However, this article takes the argument further, by citing a study from the journal Experimental Brain Research in which those who watched a boring film—that of men hanging laundry—showed greater signs of stress as measured by heart rates and hormonal level among other factors. While I wouldn’t choose to watch people hang laundry, folding my own can be quite meditative—and really quite a luxury these days. Furthermore, the article contends that the type of work, rather than the amount, is the key factor—for instance, factory assembly line work versus work that one loves. One might rank the former “boring” and latter “fulfilling,” even if the latter takes up more time.

But wait—it gets worse with what the article calls, “MISCONCEPTION NO. 2 Stress is always bad.” The article suggests a little cognitive reframing—change your mindset and stress becomes good. Really? Tell that to my poor stomach. Once again, armed with research, this time from Stanford, the article purports to convince us of the validity of this argument. In this study, researchers divided 350 participants, informed a company was laying off 10 percent of its workforce, into three groups. One group watched a video emphasizing the positive aspects of stress—as in, how you can perform better under pressure—as well as information about post-traumatic growth. Another group watched a video about the negative impact of stress. The remaining third watched nothing. Naturally, the first group performed better under pressure.

Now try to believe this one: the article presents “MISCONCEPTION NO. 3 Stress is inevitably unhealthy.”

And maybe you have a bridge to sell me?

The argument here is again about cognitive reframing—if you create a world view where stress is deemed bad, then everyone will believe it and it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. So what would happen if we believed stress was not bad.

Didn’t we try this in the 80s with greed?

Gordon Gekko aside, this seems very much like telling someone with depression to just get over it. And then if that person with depression doesn’t get over it, that person is even worse off because he or she might view him- or herself as even more powerless. Why can’t I just reframe it and feel better? What’s wrong with me? Or rather, what ELSE is wrong with me? The list grows.

The even stranger thing about this article is that it appears in the Your Money section of The New York Times, rather than in the Health or Science or Opinion or National News sections. If you change your ‘tude about stress, you will make more money. Isn’t that really the bottom line?

Maybe it is. My stress is finally releasing as I learn I have received my certification. However, can I simply cognitively reframe all the damage the excess of cortisol has done to my body? I think not. This is where I have to remind myself what is most important—money or quality of life in the short time we have this life.

I vote for the latter. I’m so over this stress. That’s my cognitive reframing.

— Sarah Kass

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