In previous columns I described stress as a combination of three things: (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tells you about your ability to cope with it and (3) a stress response that kicks in if you feel unable to cope with it.
Viewing stress this way is revolutionary and it changes you in the following ways:
- You stop being a victim who believes that stress is something that just happens to you, and is beyond your control.
- You start viewing stress as something more than just “bills, traffic, Hurricane Irma, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton,” or a million other things that you are exposed to every day.
- You start accepting that what your mind tells you about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them is the key to managing your stress.
- You start accepting that the jump from potential stressor to stress response does not have to automatically happen because you can intervene in all three components of stress.
- Let me explain how.
When it comes to stress, words are everything. Just substituting the words potential stressors, for stressors, begins to defuse their power to create stress.
By calling things potential stressors you stop accepting the outdated belief that certain things are universally stressful for everyone under all circumstances. The whole notion of universal stressors is nonsense and outdated.
Let me give you an example of a universal stressor that doesn’t always hold up. In their original studies of life events, Holmes & Rahe (1967), pioneer stress researchers, identified the death of a loved one as the most universal of all stressors. They gave this life event a score of 100 points and gave it the most weight in determining if someone would suffer from a stress-related illness in the coming year.
Since then, countless studies have disproven their findings regarding the universality of “Life Events.” For example, the death of a loved one is not always viewed by people as a stressor.
Step back and try to think about this objectively for a second. I know this is difficult because death of a loved one hits all of us hard.
If you lost a child or a friend in their teens or 20s to an unexpected accident, injury, or violent crime would you view it the same way that you would view the loss of your mom or dad who was in their 90s, had been suffering from a painful, debilitating illness, and had been constrained to a sick bed for months or even years?
I’m sorry; I know this is painful to imagine or to revisit if you have experienced such loss. I have been there so I am asking for your forgiveness as I try to make this point.
While both losses represent the death of a loved one, would your mind view them the same way?
While you probably would feel guilty or ashamed admitting it, you might feel that the latter death was a blessing in disguise. In fact, if you are totally objective about it, the death of your mom or dad actually ended their pain and suffering and reduced your stress.
I faced this with the death of my mom who suffered for years with painful, debilitating illnesses that had her in and out of emergency rooms, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. On many occasions she asked me to promise her that I would not let doctors or others keep her alive against her will when it was time to pass. I watched her waste away in a nursing home, and ultimately hospice care. When she finally passed I must admit that I felt relief and a reduction in stress because I knew she suffered no more and her wishes had been granted.
When you can categorize something as powerful as the death of a loved one as a potential stressor, you can begin to view most other things as trivial, and not even worth getting stressed out over.
What Your Mind Tells You
When you realize that the determining factor in triggering the stress response is what your mind tells you about potential stressors, and your ability to cope with them, it opens up a whole new world of coping possibilities.
Think about those words for a minute; what your mind tells you about potential stressors and your ability to cope. Those are two different areas that you can begin to work on.
One of the reasons I asked you to start keeping a stressor journal in the last column was to help you begin to look more critically at your potential stressors. When you do that you start asking questions such as: “Is that really threatening?”, “Is this really worth getting stressed out about?”, “Is that such a big loss that I am going to let myself get all stressed out over?”, “Did what she say/do/imply really harm me in some way?”
Most clients who work with me for a few months find that when they first start out, they tend to overestimate the threat, harm and loss posed by potential stressors and underestimate their ability to cope with it. Their minds tend to blow things out of proportion and they do not give themselves enough credit for being able to cope.
After a few months of working with me that trend reverses. They laugh when they look back at their stressor journals and see how they tended to overestimate threat and underestimate their ability to cope.
Part of the change comes from learning that sometimes what your mind tells you about potential stressors, and your ability to handle them is not very accurate, helpful, or stress reducing.
Another reason for the change is their increased ability to cope. Over a few months they learn new and effective coping skills. This new found set of skills leads to a more positive mental outlook regarding their coping. Stress experts call this your perceived ability to cope.
In other words your mind starts to tell you, “I can cope with that” when confronted with the same potential stressors that used to trigger a stress response. Once this happens, the power of your mind stops the stress response dead in its tracks.
Lastly, there are several ways to short-circuit the stress response even after it is triggered. Face it, sometimes potential stressors are real threats that you can’t do anything about. In this case your mind signals the alarm and your body mobilizes energy to fight or flee.
What you can do to minimize the harmful effects of this response is cancel it out by triggering a relaxation response. In other words, even when you do get stressed you can keep the effects of this response to a minimum by not letting it continue any longer than necessary.
There are many ways to induce a relaxation response but the key is recognizing that you are stressed, and making the commitment to do something about it as soon as possible.
In my next column I’ll introduce you to my multi-level defense system against stress called The Five R’s of Coping.
Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more. www.drrichblonna.com.