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Why Telling Yourself to Calm Down When You’re Stressed Totally Backfires

Science shows trying to repress stress totally backfires.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 07 Nov 2016

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Think back to the last time you were feeling really stressed and someone told you, 'Just relax.' How did you feel?

If your answer is completely and totally enraged, you're very much not alone. A new WSJ article by Sue Shellenbarger shares several anecdotes that prove the most common reaction to other well-intentioned people telling you to 'calm down' is to want to punch them in the face.

Shellenbarger speaks to a number of experts,who explain that you're not crazy to hate it when your boss tries to calm you down. It's so frustrating because it's biologically impossible.

"While the body responds rapidly to stress, returning to a relaxed state can take 20 to 60 minutes," Shellenbarger explains, adding that "other research shows that trying to hide or suppress an emotion, called 'emotion suppression,' typically backfires."

Empathy beats instruction

That's handy to know for any leader who might mistakenly think it's a kindness to urge a colleague to calm down, but even more useful are Shellenbarger's suggestions for what to do when you notice a co-worker is nearing a meltdown..

Her advice boils down to a simple switch -- acknowledge the other person's emotion, don't try to change it. "To help calm someone who is stressed, acknowledge his or her feelings first by saying, 'Looks like you're having a tough day,'" career coach Nancy Ancowitz suggests to Shellenbarger. You can go on to ask further open-ended questions like, "Tell me what's going on," to demonstrate your empathy. If you're going to make suggestions, ensure they're concrete and useful like, "Let's go for a cup of coffee."

Don't fight stress, re-label it

While Shellenbarger's article focuses exclusively on how to help (or at least not totally infuriate) others who are stressed, many of the principles she discusses can just as easily be applied when you're feeling stressed yourself. Research out of Harvard, for instance, has shown that trying to fight your stress response -- in effect, telling yourself to keep calm -- is completely ineffective.

Just as Shellenbarger urges bosses to acknowledge stress in others rather than suggest they somehow repress it, Harvard researcher Alison Wood Brooks tells those feeling jittery before a big presentation or other big challenge to stop fighting the feeling and accept it -- but also to slightly re-frame it.

Instead of worrying that you're too stressed to perform, try telling yourself that you're simply excited for the opportunity. Your body's physical response to stress and excitement are similar, Wood Brooks points out, so re-labeling your response in this way works with your physiology instead of against it.

This might sound too simple to be effective, but in a TED, Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, agrees that re-framing rather than repressing stress is the best way to cope with the pressure, both mentally and physically. "When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body's response to stress," she insists, and these physical changes make stress much less harmful.

So next time you feel your heart rate rising and your body tensing up, don't try to talk yourself down. It won't work. Instead, try to accept the feeling as your body's natural and not entirely harmful way to prep for difficulty. And for the sake of your colleagues' sanity, if you see one of them getting stressed out, never, ever tell them to just relax.