Stress is ubiquitous, and Americans are struggling to deal with it effectively. The tag #mentalhealth on TikTok has amassed 65.5 billion views and counting.

Still not sure about that?

Answer this question quickly:  What do you do when you’re hungry? Many would respond that they eat; it’s a straightforward answer to a common experience.

But what if you tweak the question with one word: What do you do when you’re stressed? This, too, is a common experience, but many may not have a really good answer.

In a country where so many are used to quick fixes and shortcuts, dealing with stress effectively requires them to do something they dread counterintuitively – to allow themselves to experience it.

According to recent data from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, over three-quarters of Americans are experiencing stress that affects their physical health. Close to 73% report they have stress that affects their mental health. Alarmingly, 27% reported feeling so stressed most days that they could not function.

In a new Pew Research Center report, most parents say they are worried about their children’s mental health. An astonishing 76% of American workers reported symptoms of anxiety or depression related to work stress.

Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce 2022 Report found that 44% of the world’s workers experienced daily stress, an all-time high. In the United States, that number was even higher at 50%; gravely, almost one in five  American workers acknowledged experiencing significant anger.

The effects of stress are costly. The White House estimated $280 billion was spent in 2020 on mental health services.

When not dealing directly with stress, negative consequences abound. Last year, 25% of people surveyed admitted to increased alcohol use, and 58% acknowledged undesired weight fluctuations due to stress. Sixty-one percent of Americans are trying to break a bad habit formed during the pandemic, including increased screen time and poor eating and sleeping habits.

Unhealthy, quick-fix responses to stress all have one commonality. Psychologists call it experiential avoidance, a phenomenon where individuals suppress or eliminate distressing experiences based on a fundamental cognitive error they make while stressed. That is, they automatically equate the presence of it with either an ominous consequence (something detrimental will surely happen to them) or an inherent character flaw (something is wrong with them).

Given the seemingly immutable nature of these thoughts, many engage in another phenomenon: displacement of emotions, which is the redirection of emotional reactions to an inappropriate target.

Due to the fundamental cognitive error many make in response to stress (something is wrong, and they can’t do anything about it), they deal with stress by suppressing it by redirecting energies away to distracting activities they can control. It is a fatalistic rigid response that leaves little room for healthy agency and making change, leading to, ironically, even more feelings of stress.

This fundamental error could not be farther from the truth.

University of Wisconsin’s Center for Healthy Minds researchers and others found that those who more accurately reported stress levels that were aligned with their heart rate (what they called coherence) had higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of inflammation. In other words, greater awareness of self and body is correlated with better psychological well-being and physical health.

Awareness, coincidentally, is the first of three “pillars” that make up psychological flexibility. The other two are openness and valued engagement. Researchers from the U.S., Australia, and Germany recently examined 55,000 research studies targeting mental health outcomes. They concluded that psychological flexibility, or the ability to recognize and adapt to different situations, is the single most important skill for emotional health and well-being.

Awareness is the first step, and it’s not just being able to recognize and describe the stressful experience. The study authors describe it as “attentively” experiencing what they explain as “the difference between talking about the flavor of an orange and actually tasting the fruit.”

For example, allowing people to feel their heart beating faster and muscles tensing, while uncomfortable, is key to effectively coping with stress. That is because they learn that these reactions are simply reactions – they are not necessarily ominous — and are also normal reactions – their bodies are simply reacting to what is happening around them.

There is an effort to address stress at the policy level. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced a $1 billion multiyear plan to increase inpatient psychiatric services and housing units in support of mental health care. The U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services is providing grant funding for states to open Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics to provide 24/7 mental health and substance abuse care.

While these are necessary services, they tend to be remedial in nature or support that happens after the stress has turned into a mental health concern. They are also expensive solutions that can take years to implement and build.

Instead, what can happen immediately is increasing awareness of the nature of stress. And that starts with one basic and simple skill that everyone can do: breathing.

Research affirms that breathing-based strategies are more effective than mindfulness meditation and cognitive strategies at reducing stress. It has been incorporated into promoting young children’s social and emotional development in schools, and it is also a godsend for parents and teachers struggling with distressed children.

Breathing helps reduce stress because stress fundamentally has a physiological component that cannot be affected by logic, which is why someone telling a person to “calm down” never works. Instead, controlled breathing signals to the brain relaxation, which helps to calm a person down. It allows the person to attentively experience the stress and decide on an appropriate course of action.

COVID, economic discomfort, and seasonal impacts remind everyone that stress is everywhere. It is an unfortunate part of life.

But suffering from it is not. Learning to take breaths is vital to increasing awareness of what is happening inside and outside of us. Practicing breathing allows the stress feelings to pass and offers the opportunity to be clear-headed and make better choices instead of the reactionary ones that are detrimental.

Most of all, it is free, simple, and requires minimal training.

Joseph Chen is a clinical psychologist.


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