Categories
Blogs

Stress Together: Social Support Protects Against Stress

I was thrilled a few years ago when M, my college roommate, decided to move to Kansas City. I loved the idea of having my oldest and closest friend within walking distance after years of being several states away. Sadly, this weekend is her last in KC. As conflicted as I am about her move (selfishly, I want her to stay. As her friend, I believe this is right for her, and I’m excited for her new adventure), I know she is stressed. Packing and preparing for a move is no small task…even when you think it will be…which is why I volunteered to help.

“You don’t have to help me pack and clean,” she said. “Uh huh. Where’s the tape?” I asked. Packing isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s a lot like 3D Tetris, which I happen to be surprisingly good at it. As we wrapped up that day, she was thankful and seemed a bit relieved, and it felt good to me to be able to support her and help in a very real way.

Share the load: Social support reduces stress

Did you know that social support is one of the biggest protective factors against stress? Having people who care there to lend a listening ear or a helping hand is invaluable during tough times. Not only do we feel cared for and less alone, which reduces stress, but social support also boosts our resilience (our ability to adapt in the face of adversity and bounce back from hardships). What’s more, having a social support network also impacts our stress response on a physical level by settling down some of our body’s reactions to stress. It’s no secret that reducing your stress level not only improves mental health, but also your physical health. The effects of stress run deep, so prioritizing stress relief and eliminating stressful situations by leaning on your social support network greatly improves your life. 

It’s not just receiving social support that helps us feel less stressed. Giving support does, too! It’s a similar situation, though, in that giving support not only feels good emotionally, but it also seems to have a calming effect on our body’s stress response. This is just one of the many health benefits of deepening our social support network and enriching social connection and social relationships. 

Types of social support

Social support during times of stress can take different forms. Often, we think about emotional support – someone being there for us, listening, sitting in the ick with us, expressing care, and being on our side. It’s a powerful thing to feel emotionally supported during times of stress, and that sense of connection buffers us against the multifaceted stress response.

Sometimes, however, what we need to give or get from our support system is instrumental support. We need concrete help alleviating the burden, whether that’s helping a friend pack, offering childcare, providing financial support, going to a doctor’s appointment, or making a meal. This type of support helps reduce or remove the source of stress. We are inherently social creatures designed to live in a connected community. We are not meant to be fully independent, and it’s not a weakness or a fail to need help sometimes. Life is hard. We’re human, and we need help.

Isolation and stress

We are literally wired for human connection. Yet, when we are struggling internally, many of us instinctively withdraw. We go further inward, pulling away from others. We don’t feel like socializing or being around loved ones.

We may worry about the impact our burdens will have on our loved ones. Concerns about weighing them down, making them worry, or bringing them down by not being fun or happy can all push us toward withdrawal as well. That’s unfortunate because doing so prevents us from using one of our best stress management tools and deprives them of that benefit as well. Next time you find yourself in the midst of a hard day or feeling stressed out, lighten the load and let a friend, family or community member, or a co-worker be there to support you. It’s good for you both.

The wrong kind of social support

When it comes to receiving and giving social support in the face of stress, I want to call out two pitfalls to be wary of: venting and invalidation.

Venting isn’t always a good thing

It can feel good to vent to someone about the things stressing us out, but it you pay close attention, you’ll realize that venting isn’t always that helpful. Rumination is a nasty mental habit of looping endlessly on the same, typically negative thoughts, and venting often turns into ruminating out loud. When you rehash the same territory again and again, without a resolution or new insights, you’ve crossed into unhelpful venting. While it may on some level feel nice to share your frustrations with another person, especially if they agree with you, you’ll likely notice that your emotional landscape is anger, stress, worry, or sadness. You’re unnecessarily feeling the same things all over again, like stoking a fire that needs to die out.

Keep in the mind the difference between processing (making sense out of a situation and your reaction), problem-solving (coming up with a feasible solution to change or address the situation), and venting (rehashing and complaining repeatedly). Spend your time and energy on the first two and skip the latter.

Invalidation

Validation is an important relationship skill that involves recognizing and affirming another’s emotional experience. Invalidation, on the other hand, takes the form of denying, dismissing, or rejecting their emotional experience. It is a sneakily damaging thing that negatively impacts our nervous systems and erodes relationships and trust over time.

While some people intentionally use invalidation as a tool to manipulate, most people are well-intentioned and don’t even realize that they are being invalidating.

In an effort to help others feel better, we say accidentally invalidating things that actually hurt more than help. These kinds of statements come from a good place, our desire to help them feel better, alleviate some of their burden, or help them navigate a difficult situation. Unfortunately, they tend to feel dismissive, rejecting, or denying. Keep an eye out for comments like these common responses:

  • “It could be worse.”
  • “But at least…” (Finding the bright side can be quite a helpful strategy at times but not others.)
  • “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “Don’t be sad/anxious/embarrassed.”
  • “I don’t know why that bothers you so much.”
  • “You shouldn’t let that get you down.”

Instead, try reflecting back their feelings. Acknowledging another’s emotional experience does not mean you agree with it. It just means you see them and you understand them. Try something like “I can see how stressed you are” or “That sounds really tough” or (my personal favorite) “Of course you feel ____! That makes sense.” Once you’ve validated and offered support, you can shift into problem-solving or letting go or whatever the next step needs to be.

Strengthen your important relationships

Strong healthy relationships are important for more reasons that just managing stress, so it’s well worth the effort to develop effective relationship skills. In fact, relationships is one of the key elements of psychological strength. The next Peak Mind Quarterly Psych Strength Workshop is coming up on Tuesday April 12, 2022 and we’re focusing on communication styles. This workshop will help you understand your own communication style and characteristic ways of relating to others. It will also help you better understand important people in your life and gain more effective ways of communicating and connecting with them.

Develop a comprehensive personalized stress management plan

Last week, we made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community for the first time, and many of you took quick action to get a handle on stress. Kudos to you! If you haven’t yet, now is the time to redefine your relationship with stress and learn to navigate it with ease. Through this link only, you can get the Stress Management Mini-Course AND add Self-Care [by Design], our most popular course, for only $10. 

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
 – Fred Rogers
Categories
Blogs

Handle Stress Better: It’s Not All Bad

The end of my first semester in graduate school was probably the most stressed out I have ever been. It was finals week, and I had a ton of writing assignments due within an 18 hour window. Did I work ahead and plan my time out accordingly? No! Of course not! My best friend and I watched Beaches (so we’d have an excuse to cry) then hit the library afterward, leaving us less than 24 hours to write a 15 page paper and a few 3-4 page ones. Our plan was to rely on Dr. Pepper and adrenaline to write all night. As you can imagine…it did not go well.

At 5 a.m., I found my way-over-caffeinated-beyond-stressed-out-in-desperate-need-of-sleep self in the bathtub trying to relax enough so I could finish those papers. I seriously thought I was having an aneurysm. It was terrible. Somehow, I got it all done by the deadline, but I was a wreck, completely convinced I wasn’t cut out for graduate school or being a psychologist. I even called the school district in my hometown to find out if I could become a teacher instead. Fortunately, they never called me back, and I got to recoup over the holiday break. That experience taught me some hard-won lessons, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten near that level of stressed out again. Thank goodness because that really sucked.

Is Stress Bad?

After that little gem I just shared, you might expect me to answer with a resounding YES! And you might say the same thing. It seems that we’ve been taught to think of stress as a bad thing to be avoided, and that’s problematic for a few reasons. One, stress is unavoidable. Absolutely and completely unavoidable. Any demand for your time, attention, or energy is going to cause some measure of stress. So even if you withdraw from life completely – no work, no relationships, no nothing – you’re still going to get hungry, and that requires your time, attention, and energy to resolve. Viola, stress! Albeit, that would likely register as a very minor amount of stress (assuming you have ready access to food). Still, the idea that we can avoid stress is faulty because it just isn’t possible. 

The notion that we should avoid stress because it is harmful or bad for us is also faulty, but it’s a little more complicated. Yes, stress can be quite harmful for us, when it is chronic and poorly managed. That caveat is an important one, so keep it in mind. 

Unchecked, chronic stress can lead to all kinds of health issues and even premature death. It affects the quality of our minds, making them more negative and less effective problem-solvers. Stress can impact our moods and turn us into snappy unpleasant people to be around. All considered, chronic poorly managed stress has a negative impact on virtually every area of our lives and functioning. 

But Stress Can Be Good for You

Here’s the interesting thing to consider…stress can actually be good for us under the right circumstances. 

My little brother and Dr. April, my co-founder here at Peak Mind, have something in common. They both lift weights. Not like I do, taking a strength class here and there, working enough to be a little sore. They lift heavy. They intentionally put their muscles under a lot of stress to hold that heavy burden, causing tiny tears and microtraumas in the tissue…and that is absolutely necessary for building muscle mass and increasing strength. Our muscles must be taxed – they must be stressed – to get stronger. 

It’s not just our muscles that benefit from being stressed, though. A growing body of research suggests that other stressful conditions such as cold and hunger (e.g., intermittent fasting) can have a positive impact on our bodies and brains as well, triggering biological responses that help optimize our DNA.

Other Benefits of Stress

Beyond the increases in strength and health that can come from taxing our bodies, stress can be good for us psychologically as well. Consider the hero from your favorite action or fantasy movie. Did they have an easy, stress-free life? Doubtful! The journey for most heroes includes adversity and challenge, which they learn from and overcome, and it often becomes the source of their strength or power. We are no different. By overcoming challenge (aka stressful situations), we can build mental toughness, resilience, and find wells of inner strength we did not know we had.

How to Handle Stress Better 

Whether stress is good or bad for you depends on a few factors like how much stress you’re experiencing at any given point in time (stress compounds – it adds up), how much stress you can handle (your psychological strength and stress management skills), and your mindset (turns out, believing that stress can be good for you can make it so). You may or may not be able to control how much stress life throws at you at any given moment, but you can definitely do something about the last two factors. Rethinking your relationship with stress and taking intentional action to improve your ability to manage stress is critical. After all, stress is an inevitable part of life. It’s time to develop the tools, skills, and mindset necessary to prevent those freaking-out-in-the-bathtub stressed out moments.  

In honor of this being Stress Awareness month, we are making our Stress Management mini-course available for the first time. This little powerhouse of a product will help you redefine your relationship with stress and learn to manage it skillfully, transforming your experience when under pressure. This mini-course is multi-faceted to help you learn and grow more. You’ll get:

  • A short educational video
  • A beautifully designed digital workbook that includes additional information and 6 hands on exercises to help increase your awareness and understanding of your stress response and develop your own personalized stress management plan
  • A 2 week email challenge that will introduce you to a wide range of stress management strategies and tips
  • 3 in the moment tools to use any time you feel stressed, tense, or are having a difficult time

In addition, only through this link, you can get our popular Self-Care [by Design] mini-course for only $10 (normally $29) when you bundle the two courses.

Remember, stress is inevitable. Being stressed out is optional.

“You cannot remove struggle from life, but you can improve your ability to handle challenge.”
– James Clear