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The dangers of comparing stress

By The Health News Team | March 18, 2022
Illustration of two women talking on the couch

Feeling stressed? You’re not alone.

According to the World Health Organization, global anxiety and depression rates have increased a whopping 25% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we’re seeing COVID case numbers fall and a new normal arise, fear of new variants and general unknowns still plague our everyday mental well-being.

“Unrest still exists for many of us due to social, cultural, financial and health reasons,” says Shanette Smith, LMFT, a senior specialist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and Sharp McDonald Center. “The world is attempting to rebalance after a long period of collective isolation and fear.”

To cope with this increased stress, it’s not uncommon to compare your hardships with those experienced by others. Comparing stress can offer the opportunity to offload your experience and in return, elicit validation from others that your situation is, in fact, hard.

“We engage in this behavior as a way to make sense of things and establish a sense of perspective,” says Smith. “It’s comparative suffering, and while thinking ‘it could be worse’ may help us superficially, it’s not getting to the root of the problem, and can cause a deeper level of struggle.”

The dangers of comparing stress
When times get tough, venting to a friend or family member can offer peace of mind. Sometimes, having a supportive ear is all you need. But once comparisons start, you enter a more volatile territory.

According to Smith, this can be harmful for a few reasons, including:

Not everyone reacts to stress in the same way — While others may share similar situations, the way they see or cope with them might be different. It doesn’t mean they’re right or you’re wrong — it simply means that your approach and process won’t necessarily line up with theirs, and that’s OK.

It can keep you from facing your problem — Facing the cause of your stress is a vital part of coping with it. While comparing your problems may feel like a release, it can offer a superficial sense of relief, and keep you from taking the next step in dealing with the issue.

It can cause feelings of minimization — “It could be worse” is a sentiment designed to make lighter of your situation. It may be nice to know that you’re not coping with the worst of things, but it doesn’t change that you’re still dealing with something troubling and real.

It can deter you from getting the right kind of help — When your feelings are minimized, it’s easy to believe you’re overreacting, and consequently, fail to get the help you deserve. If you’re coping with something hard, and you feel you need support, never let someone else’s hardships make yours feel less serious.

A better way to cope
When tempted to compare your stress, or when faced with someone who wants to, there’s a more productive way to help yourself and others.

  • When lending an ear to others, resist the urge to use phrases such as, “If I were in that situation” or “If I were you.” Remember, it isn’t you, so be an active listener instead. “People want to be heard,” says Smith. “It’s our job to actively engage and ask, ‘How can I support you right now?’”

  • When others are lending an ear to you, and respond by sharing a “darker” story, it’s OK to stop them and express what you need. For example, say something like, “I know you are trying to help, but these stories aren’t what I need right now. Would you mind if I just vent a little?”

Discussing your problems with others can be helpful if approached the right way. It is also not the only solution to dealing with stress.

“There is power in numbers,” says Smith. “While I caution you not to engage in comparative suffering, I do want to say that you are not in this struggle alone. Pour into yourself — whether that is carving out time to exercise, socialize or take a timeout to reflect and breathe. Microdose yourself with self-care, be easy on yourself and take the time you need to recharge.”

Talk with your doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing excessive sadness, anxiety or worry for an extended period. Learn more about related mental health programs at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.

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