Stress has a bad rap.
Stress can create problems, to be sure. Some of the more common ones are include difficulty concentrating, trouble with focus and memory, moodiness, frustration and overwhelm.
There are physical symptoms as well – low energy, headaches, trouble with digestion, aches and pains, and trouble with sleep. In fact, up to 80% of doctor visits are for “stress related ailments and complaints”.
These things seem undecidedly bad. But here’s the truth about stress: sometimes, part of the problem is how you think about the problem. Stress isn’t really one thing; it’s two.
We use the word “stress” to describe the difficult and challenging events that are indeed part of life. Your kid wakes up with a sore throat, your client isn’t happy with the drawings, your car gets a flat tire.
These things can be hard, but there’s no avoiding them. They’re part of our experience of life.
We also use the word “stress” to describe how we respond to these events. Many people assume that the way we respond is a given: “Of course I’m stressed out; my boss is asking me to do the job of two people.” Or “Of course I snap sometimes; my partner’s being unreasonable.”
But the truth about stress is that our stressful response to inevitable difficulties is actually the heart of the problem.
Peace in a crisis
I’m reminded of a story by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote about a time when he was trying to negotiate a landing for a group of “boat people” – undocumented refugees from the Vietnam War who were trying to land in the Gulf of Siam.
If the authorities agreed, these people would find a safe haven and a new home.
If the authorities objected, the boat would continue to move from port to port, unlikely to find a landing place in any country. It was possible to spend one’s life on the boat without ever setting foot on land.
The stakes were high, and the future of this boat depended on the negotiation.
“How can I be peaceful now?” Nhat Hahn asked himself. And then, in a moment of clarity came another question, “If not now, when?” He knew in that moment that working with his own response came first. Only after that could he attempt to negotiate a solution for the boat.*
A surprising contributor
The relationship between difficult events and your response to them is surprising. There’s a study, for example, that shows that people who experience more stressful events have more health problems. Makes sense, right?
But there’s a catch. This relationship between difficult events and health problems is only true for people who believe that difficult events are bad for you.
Kelley McGonigal, a Stanford health psychologist, describes an 8-year study that investigated how people perceive stress. It turns out that people who believe that stress creates health problems are 2 to 4 times more likely to report health problems. The very belief that “stress is bad” — is bad for your health.
As author Andrew Bernstein says that the truth about stress is that “stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about those circumstances.” The good news is that those thoughts can be changed.
Changing your thoughts
When you change the way you think about something, you also change how you feel and how you act. You end up with more energy and more creativity, so you’re more able to solve the real problems you might be facing.
Keep one thing in mind, though. “Changing your thoughts” doesn’t mean ignoring the problem or telling yourself things that you’re experiencing aren’t true. It does mean taking a close look at beliefs and perceptions that automatically rise to the surface on many “stressful” occasions.
With that in mind, here are a few ways to change stress-producing thoughts into energy-producing thoughts:
- Reinterpret your response. Your rapid heartbeat and stomach flutters are signs that your body is rising to the occasion, getting ready to help you take action. They are signals that your body is working well by providing the energy you need to solve the problem you are facing. Reinterpreting your natural and normal response to stress will help you feel calmer and more focused right away.
- Do an about-face. Trying to avoid difficult situations actually increases stressful feelings, because it focuses your mind on those events. Instead of trying to get away from a stressful situation, think about moving toward something that you want. Instead of complaining about your colleague because she keeps asking you for favors, decide what kind of relationship you do want with her. Then take one specific action that will help bring that about.
- Own part of the problem. Getting angry or worried about the injustice of a situation won’t lead to change.
- However, you can usually change: a) your physiological response; b) your thoughts; c) your feelings; or d) your relationship to the situation (e.g. changing jobs). This is not about self-blame. Instead, it’s simple recognition that in most cases, you’re part of the situation that’s stressing you out. And that part, however small, is something you can change.
Taking a breath.
You can’t eliminate stressful events from your life. But stress, in the form of roadblocks and challenges, isn’t always bad. The truth is that your body is designed to get you through challenges, difficult events, and crises.
Short, manageable bursts of arousal can increase creativity, improve efficiency, and keep you on your toes. The increase in physical arousal gives you the energy you need to change.
The problem lies in how you respond to those events. Fortunately, it is possible to change your response.
You can reduce stressful feelings by changing your thoughts. “Every breath we take, every step we make,” says Nhat Hanh, “can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.” With this kind of thinking, he was able to negotiate a plan for the boat people to safely disembark.
This doesn’t mean you won’t feel angry, scared, sad, or frustrated when something difficult happens. Those feelings are normal, and temporary. But stress is more than an event. It’s a mindset.
There will always be stressful events. The challenge is in learning how to change the way they affect you.
* I heard this story long ago, and am describing the details from memory.
If you know of a written reference for this story, I would appreciate the reference.