Some tension is so buried, you don't even know it's there. But that kind of stress and anxiety is hurting your health and stealing your happiness
There’s a sneaky type of anxiety that lurks beneath your consciousness, undetected for the most part but certainly not inert. This isn’t that obvious angst we feel when we’re under recognizable duress, but rather a vague mental and physical state that experts call iceberg stress, so named because the teeny tip that is apparent on the surface is nothing compared with what’s looming below. “Iceberg stress can be triggered by habits so ingrained that we may not always be aware of them, such as perfectionism or negative self talk,” explains David Lewis, Ph.D., a psychologist and a fellow of the International Stress Management Association. For instance, you look at your neighbor’s house and lament that yours will never be as chic; at work, you worry that your boss is frustrated with you. This type of thinking becomes so automatic that you don’t even notice it, but the accompanying tension is building quietly and doing physical and emotional damage. (Find out When Worry Isn't Normal—And How to Stop It.)
“Another way to understand iceberg stress is to think of it as like living next to a busy highway,” Lewis continues. “After a while you stop hearing the traffic. But that doesn’t mean the fumes and the noise aren’t getting to you.” In his research, Lewis found that often people who said they weren’t stressed or anxious nonetheless had elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
So what’s to blame? It may be a factor of today’s culture of busyness. We’re spending more time than ever at work, according to studies from the Russell Sage Foundation, a social science research organization. Simultaneously, we’re spending less time taking part in the things that really relax us and give us joy, like relationships and hobbies. “Often stress is a sign that we aren’t doing what’s important to us, or that when we are, we aren’t noticing it because we’re too busy thinking about what we have to do next,” says Lizabeth Roemer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a coauthor of The Mindful Way Through Anxiety. (Try our Guilt-Free Guide to Taking a Mental Health Day.)
On a crash course
If you don’t realize you’re stressed, you can’t deal with it, and that’s a big problem. “Over time, stress hormones cause inflammation and the release of damaging free radicals that wear down your natural defenses,” says Peg Baim, the director of the Stress Management and Resiliency Training Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The effects of stress accumulate, and the body loses its ability to regulate cholesterol, blood sugar, metabolism, and emotions.” Your first line of defense is to recognize the signs of iceberg stress. If you find yourself criticizing yourself and the people around you or ruminating on little problems that you consciously know aren’t worth it, you’re probably struggling. Not being able to cope with everyday aggravations is one of the surest clues, Lewis says.
In addition, pay attention to the signals your body is sending you. “Everyone has a tell,” Lewis says. For example, after a few hours at work, you may have back pain or a headache. “Your system is ramping up its production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, and increasing inflammation to give you the energy and protection it thinks you need to plow through,” Baim explains. “That’s how it deals with the tension, but that, in turn, can lower your brain’s threshold for additional stress.”
Your next step is to try to ID what’s eating away at you. Each night before bed, jot down your feelings from throughout the day, Lewis suggests. Don’t hold back—make note of anything that pops into your head. At the end of the week, read the entries and look for patterns, like recurring feelings of jealousy or inadequacy. These are things that contribute to iceberg stress, and when they’re out in the open, you’ll be better able to recognize and deal with them going forward, he says. (You could also try one of the 5 Easy Ways to Start Your Day Stress-Free.)
Sink iceberg stress
Once you have a sense of what’s causing your tension, it’s time to find ways to minimize it. These techniques are proven to help.
It takes face-to-face time with your tribe to really connect. “Facebook and texting can fill in some gaps,” says Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., the author of Generation Me, “but it’s sort of like eating junk food when what you really need is a healthy meal.” As we all know, most people post only the good stuff on social media, tempting you to compare your life with theirs and to feel that you’re falling short, a big trigger of iceberg stress. But when you sit down and have a heart-to-heart with a friend, you get the whole story—the bad and the good— Twenge says. Plus, it feels therapeutic to spill the latest details about what’s going on in your life. In the process, you might express thoughts and feelings that you didn’t even know were gnawing at you.
Tone down your workout (you read that right)
Your heart-thumping cardio blast is great for busting stress in general, but the problem with intense workouts is that they tend to focus on achieving some optimum goal (how many reps you do, how speedy you are), encouraging you to pressure yourself to beat your last PR or to out-exercise your fitness frenemy. That sense of competition and purpose can be fun and healthy, but if you’re really suffering from iceberg stress, it can exacerbate the matter.
Instead, every day until you feel calmer overall, set aside time to take an outdoor stroll, Lewis says. If you’re really craving a sweat, pick up the pace and run, but leave your tracker at home, suggests Carrie Roldan, the author of Run Yourself Happy. “Think ‘I need to run to feel good, to quiet my mind, and to be in nature,’” she says. “The point is to use running to connect to what really matters, so it becomes a meditation in motion.” Bonus: You Don't Have to Run Very Far to Reap the Benefits of Running.
Each time your smartphone pings, take a deep belly breath, then slowly exhale before checking the notification. It may seem a little silly, but these moments of mindfulness add up to something powerful. (Psst...these Breathing Exercises Can Better Any Situation.) Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows your heart rate, delivers more oxygen to your brain, and turns off your body’s stress response, lowering levels of cortisol, Baim explains.
Find your purpose
Ask yourself, “What matters most to me in life?” Then brainstorm ways to stay connected with that greater purpose every day. If your big passion is to help others, for instance, volunteer with a group like Girls on the Run, which teaches preteens self-confidence through running. “When we’re connecting to something that’s really meaningful to us, it builds up a sort of buffer zone between ourselves and the constant pressures that contribute to below-the-surface stress,” says Jack Groppel, Ph.D., a founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute.
Claim a mantra
The more you repeat negative, competitive, or self-defeating thoughts (like “My butt never looks good in yoga pants”), the more hard-wired they become, Baim says. To keep these downer beliefs from sticking, find a few positive oneliners and make them your cell phone’s wallpaper. When you see them, repeat them to yourself so that they become fixed in your brain. Soon, they’ll crowd out the negative. (A great place is start is one of these Pinterest-Worthy Workout Mantras to Power Every Part of Your Life.)