For many people, the only acceptable answer to the question “How are you?” is “I’m fine!”—even if they’re completely stressed and overwhelmed. And the thought of a more honest response—like, “actually, I’m dealing with a lot of stress right now and I could use some support” can feel too scary and vulnerable.
Everyone, no matter how “together” they seem, deals with periods of intense stress. But for whatever reason, so many people think they need to keep their stress to themselves—which is not only unhealthy, but unsustainable. You can’t navigate stressful situations and get to the other side if you don’t acknowledge your stress—or, in other words, if you want to deal with your stress, you need to talk about it.
But why is talking honestly about stress so important? How can opening up about what you’re going through make it easier to deal with stress? And if you’re not used to talking about stress, how can you open up and start speaking more honestly and authentically about the stress in your life?
Why it’s important to open up about stress
You might think that not talking about or acknowledging stress will make it go away. But, as it turns out, the opposite is true—and holding stress in can not only exacerbate stressful feelings, but can also have a negative impact on your health. “Our bodies continue to hold on to the feelings and emotions we don’t release,” says California-based licensed marriage and family therapist Morgan Goulet. “Prolonged stress is particularly damaging to the body.”
For example, when you’re dealing with prolonged stress, it can put your body into a chronic state of fight, fright, or freeze—which can hinder your ability to focus and get things done. “Keeping our fight/flight/freeze constantly activated and engaged is similar to having a constant alarm going off in your house; leaving us always on edge, in fear and worry, and unable to think clearly or logically to successfully complete day-to-day tasks and responsibilities,” says Amanda Kostura, licensed independent social worker and founder of Carve Your Own Path, a mental health practice in Akron, OH.
Being unwilling or unable to talk about stress honestly can also isolate you from the people around you—and prevent you from getting the support you need to manage your feelings of overwhelm and get to a better, healthier, and less stressful place. “If we don’t let people know how we’re truly feeling then we aren’t able to get the support or help that we may need,” says Goulet.
The benefits of talking honestly about stress
Clearly, not talking honestly about stress can have some serious consequences. But opening up about the stress you experience has equally serious benefits.
Talking honestly about stress can help you get support. First, talking honestly about your stress gives the people in your life insight into how you’re doing—and lets them know that you might need some extra support.
“Talking openly about our stress, even if it’s simply telling someone we feel stressed or overwhelmed, provides a base for them to know that we are struggling and may need support or flexibility for the time being,” says Goulet.
Talking honestly about stress can strengthen your relationships. Talking more openly about the stress you’re experiencing can also help you show up in your relationships in a more authentic way—which can ultimately strengthen those relationships and bring you closer to the people in your life.
“By talking more honestly about how you’re feeling with someone you begin to deepen the relationship you have with that person,” says Goulet. “
“Sharing with the right people builds better, deeper relationships and allows others to be a support when we need it most,” says Dr. Julie Gurner, a doctor of psychology and executive performance coach in NYC. “If you’d want to be there for others, it’s important to allow others to be there for you.”
Talking honestly about stress can validate your experience—and validate the experience of others. Talking openly about stressful experiences or feelings can also make you feel less alone. When you share your stress with someone else, “they may validate, empathize or normalize your feelings, which feels good and leads to building trust” says Goulet.
And that validating experience can go both ways. “As you start to become more open and honest, that person begins to develop more trust in you and may share how they’re feeling,” says Goulet.
“Learning the language of honest communication about our emotions not only helps us heal, but validates similar experiences of others,” says Kostura.
Talking honestly can help you work through your stress—and make the changes you need to live a less stressful life. It’s impossible to deal with stress if you don’t acknowledge it. By acknowledging and talking about your stress, you can start to deal with it—and figure out what changes you need to make to alleviate that stress and start feeling better.
“Sometimes, when bottled up, people can avoid dealing with the very real impacts of stress,” says NYC-based licensed mental health counselor Kelly Keck. “Giving space to those emotions, and making them ‘real,’ can allow someone to truly start to work through that stress.”
“Calling out the stress and identifying the contributing factors might also lead to an important reflection about the state of things in [your] life,” continues Keck. “Perhaps it is time for change, or a boundary, or a mental health break…talking about it can bring light to those needs.”
How to start talking more openly about stress
Talking honestly about stress can make you a happier, healthier person. But if you’re used to acting like everything is fine (even when it isn’t!), the thought of opening up about your stress might make you feel, ironically, even more stressed out.
Luckily, you don’t have to open up to everyone about your stress if it makes you uncomfortable; you just need to be able to speak honestly with one person, at least to start. “Seek out just one person you feel safe with,” says Kostura. “Who do you feel like supports you no matter what?”
Once you’ve figured out who you feel comfortable talking to, start by sharing one stressful situation or feeling you’re dealing with—and be as open as you can about the details.
“Share something specific that you’re struggling with, that is stressing you out or overwhelming you, and ask for feedback,” says Gurner. “For example, instead of saying ‘I feel so overwhelmed,’ try saying, ‘I feel so overwhelmed trying to balance work and childcare right now…how are you managing it?’”
When you share the specifics of what you’re going through, “instead of just getting sympathy, you’ll get empathy—and someone who might be able to give you some specific advice to help navigate it,” says Gurner.
If there’s something that person can do to help you deal with the stress, also take your conversation as an opportunity to ask for help. “Identify if there is anything someone can do to help decrease your stress,” says Goulet. “Would it be helpful for someone to pick up the kids one day, extend a deadline at work, or grab lunch with you? Ask them!”
Once you get more comfortable talking honestly about stress with your “safe” person, you can (if you want to!) start to open up to more people in your life. And instead of keeping your stress bottled up inside (and dealing with the consequences that go along with it), share what you’re going through with the people that you love (and experiences the benefits that come from that openness).
If you don’t have anyone you feel comfortable talking honestly with about stress, you can also seek professional help; a therapist or trained mental health professional can be a great resource to listen, help you navigate your feelings of stress, and come up with solutions to help you better deal with stressful feelings and experiences.
Stress is a part of life. But speaking openly and honestly about stress is the first step towards managing it, processing it, and getting to a better (and less stressful!) place.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.