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Why Avoiding Stress is Bad for You

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A key assumption underpinning the early research into stress, was that stress results from adverse events, which cause psychological and physical distress. Makes sense. However, a recent study sought to explore whether the reverse could also be true. Could attempts to avoid distress, actually lead to more of it?

The study involved 1,211 late middle-aged individuals took part in the study, who answered 3 questionnaires over a 10 year period. This assessed how much they avoided thinking realistically about a problem, or reduced tension by expressing negative feelings, rather than dealing with the problem.

They were also questioned about the stresses of their life – like being fired, getting divorced, having too little money for the basics, conflicts with co-workers. 157 of them in total!

The study found two strong correlations: The more people avoided stress, the more significant stresses they experienced. AND the more depressive symptoms they also experienced over the 10 year period.

Now, I teach statistics, so I’m always cautious with data. A relationship between two things doesn’t always mean that one is causing the other. So what could these findings actually mean?

Someone who tries to avoid the discomfort of conflict, is more likely to have that conflict escalate into something more serious, like getting divorced, or getting fired. In the workplace, this avoidance can lead to colleague disagreements simmering away under the surface, leading to further stresses between those individuals (potentially affecting their other colleagues too).

Avoiding the discomfort of stepping up to a challenge might mean missing out on a promotion, and the extra money it brings; and day to day, can cause people to avoid speaking up to point out potential problems – again creating more stress across the organisation when problems persist. How often do you hear people complaining about what’s happening, rather than doing anything about it? It’s a useful indicator of avoidance in action.

And avoidance also means that when something unpleasant happens, we're more likely to brush it under the carpet and move on.  In contrast, a willingness to reflect and learn from the experience (even if it wasn't a nice one) makes it less likely to happen again.

The individual events can be small and subtle, but the cumulative effect is huge. So how do you people  resolve your stresses, and celebrate when you do?...

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