Sunday Scaries

Do You Cause Your Own Stress? How To Stop a “Toxic Cycle”

New research illuminates the link between stress generation and anxiety.

We tend to talk about stress as if it is something that happens to us — the result of too many demands and too little time and patience to handle them. Fallon Goodman understands this feeling.

“As a new mom, I can relate,” she says. “The hours blow by as I try to balance running a lab, keeping my kid alive and happy, and contributing to our household.”

Goodman is an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Emotion and Resilience Laboratory at George Washington University. It’s true that stress can often be an unruly force — some stressful events are out of our control — but Goodman is interested in our role in determining how stressed we feel. Specifically, how we ante up the stress ourselves.

Her work is connected to the stress generation hypothesis, which posits that people can create stressful moments as a result of their behavior. These instances of stress are known in psychology research as “dependent stressful life events.” Basically, these are stressful experiences driven by your choices — like instigating a blowout argument with your partner or putting off a challenging work task until the deadline hits.

In contrast, the “independent stressful events” rubric applies to the random, largely uncontrollable things that happen to us — like your car getting rear-ended at a stoplight or a deep freeze blowing out your water pipes.

So it’s a little frustrating when you get in the way of your own success. But realizing how much you influence your own stress could help flip the script and give you some power over your future. Research shows it is possible to learn to recognize whether or not you are fueling your stress — and stop the process.

Stress generation and social anxiety

Researchers found evidence for the role of stress generation in social anxiety.

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In a new paper, Goodman and her colleagues explore stress generation in the context of social anxiety, which is characterized by persistent fear and avoidance of social situations.

Goodman explains that these facets of social anxiety can also generate or escalate stress. For example, you might stop yourself from speaking up at a contentious work meeting out of fear of seeming stupid — but by staying silent, you might hurt your productivity. Or you might ghost on a promising first date because you are worried you might appear awkward and, in turn, you feel even lonelier.

A lot of past research on how stress arises is based on studies of depression and not anxiety. Yet these findings suggested to Goodman that people with social anxiety might have a similar experience as those with other mental health issues.

“There’s a harsh reality to mental health — a person’s symptoms can worsen their stress, which in turn worsens their symptoms,” she explains. “This creates a toxic cycle that can be hard to break from.”

Across two studies, Goodman and her colleagues observe that participants with higher social anxiety symptoms and social anxiety disorder reported experiencing more dependent stressful life events than people without social anxiety. In one study, people with social anxiety disorder also rated independent and dependent stressful events as equally influential on their well-being.

The results are published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. According to the study team, they provide “initial evidence” for the role of stress generation in social anxiety.

“In many ways, I actually view these findings as hopeful,” Goodman says. “They suggest that we have more control over stress than we often realize.”

How to manage your stress

Through certain actions, you can mitigate stress generation.

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Goodman recommends considering what specific events and areas of your life you are most stressed about. Write a list.

Now comes the hard part: Reflect on your role in each of the items on your list.

“We have to be honest with ourselves and reflect on the role we play in causing or worsening stressful events,” Goodman says. “More often than not, our personalities or behaviors are fueling the stress fire.”

To start, ask yourself:

  • How much control do I have over the situation?
  • What am I doing — or not doing — to make this situation better or worse?

If you truly have no control over the event, then it’s time to shift gears, Goodman says. Think about how you can respond to or cope with the stressor. For example, you could seek out the support of loved ones, go for a walk outside, or reengage with objects and activities in life that you value.

“If you have some control over the event, such as getting very behind at work, then you must identify what you are doing to cause or worsen the stressor,” Goodman urges. “What are you doing, saying, or thinking? What problematic patterns caused this stressor?”

People with social anxiety may take this line of questioning a step further and consider how their fear of rejection may be making their situation more difficult.

After asking yourself these questions, Goodman advises making a plan to modify any unhelpful behaviors, words, and thoughts. The next time you find yourself in a similar situation, what will you do differently? Outline for yourself what actions might lead to a less stressful outcome.

Importantly, one thing you definitely want to do is avoid damaging self-blame. In Goodman and her colleague’s study, the participants blamed themselves more often for dependent than independent stressful events — regardless of whether or not they experienced social anxiety.

Yet self-blame can also be self-defeating. Instead, take the opportunity to be empathetic and assertive. There are many parts of life we can’t control — this is the rare instance where we do have some power.

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