Coming to Grips with Stress

There seems to be an epidemic of stress. More and more individuals are claiming to be suffering from it. Organisations are going to great lengths to try and insulate themselves from stress claims which are becoming costlier and costlier. Overall, as a result, our society is paying a great price, from the dysfunction in organisations to the rising rates of suicide.

We can be both physically and psychologically stressed. But even those who are physically stressed seem more concerned with the psychological symptoms of their malaise than the physiological discomfiture. By and large we become stressed when we feel responsible for things over which we have little control or we are faced with a demanding environment which seems to present us with few options. In such circumstances we feel trapped. We are faced with a future of unrelenting demands and we feel powerless to modify it.

Most of us try to cope with stress using avoidance mechanisms. We seek to take ourselves out of the demanding environment. Sometimes this is done quite consciously and is manifest in the workplace by absenteeism. Sometimes we do it unconsciously and our stress is displaced into psychological and/or physical symptoms that excuse us from addressing the unwanted stressors.

One helpful approach to understanding stress is to apply the following equation.


Here we see that stress is directly proportional to the perceived demands our environment imposes on us, but it is inversely proportional to our latitude, i.e., our resilience to stress.

Stress avoidance may be useful in the short-term but it is generally dysfunctional in the long term. Many people report being stressed by their work or work environment and yet, for various reasons, will find it difficult to modify those components that are prompting the stress response. It is all very easy to advise that they seek different employment, but that too is impractical if they can’t afford to be unemployed for any length of time or they have skills that are in limited demand.

The first issue to be examined here is whether our perceptions of demand are actually real. Many people have unrealistic perceptions of the demand-capacity gap. In a job setting they will often expect more of themselves than do their supervisor or employer. This is generally due to a poor self-concept that drives them to try to be impervious to criticism in any way by striving to overperform. Consequently, they perceive demand to be greater than it actually is. Because of their poor self-concept it will take an understanding approach from their supervisor or peer group to correct this misperception.

A very worthwhile stress management process is to try and improve our resilience to stress, because this will ameliorate our feelings of stress in almost all circumstances, whereas reducing demand will only provide a benefit for a particular set of circumstances. I am not however, promoting this as an easy option, because most stress has psychological determinants which are dependant on some fundamental assumptions and beliefs that are not easily modified.

There are, however, some relatively easy techniques for stress relief. Let us deal with them first.

To begin with, as we saw earlier, stress is often associated with feeling trapped, being in an unpleasant situation with little chance of escape. A lot of evidence suggests, however, that social support networks can improve this situation greatly. When people can engage in constructive discussion about their problems they can generate options for resolving, to some extent, their difficulties. The evidence suggests that it does not matter whether those options are exercised; just having perceived options is stress relieving. This option seems more accessible to women than men. Women are more open to discussing these issues with a social support network than men are. This can, in some ways, explain the higher rates of suicide of men compared with women.

As well as this, there are numerous techniques for relieving the physical symptoms of stress. Various relaxation techniques and meditation processes are useful moderators of stress and its symptoms.

But underlying most stress (and indeed virtually all circumstances when we “feel bad” for reasons that do not relate to our physical well-being) is a deeply embedded myth we have learned about the human condition.

MYTH – How we feel and how we react is caused by
what has happened to us.

REALITY – Negative feelings and reactions are learned responses that have become part of our repertoire of responses through reinforcement. Once having been learned, they continue to be subconsciously reinforced each time they are selected from this repertoire as strategies for changing one’s world – even though the outcomes may prove to be unsatisfactory.

(Note: The Myth outlined above and the material which follows is based on the work of Dr Phil Harker and is further expanded in The Myth of Nine to Five by Ted Scott and Dr Phil Harker.)

Because negative feelings and reactions have been learned, they can be unlearned, but only when the myth is replaced by reality.

Let us spend a little time in explaining how the myth is propagated. By and large it is something we learn from our parents (and they are not to blame, because they learnt it from their parents too, and so it is perpetuated through the generations.) When we are young and we do things our parents don’t approve of they get upset. We come home and our brand new shirt is torn. Mother gets upset and angrily says, “You naughty child. You’ve spoiled your new clothes!” It seems to us that her upset has been caused by the state of our clothes. On another occasion we may be clearing the table and we drop a wine goblet from a treasured set and it smashes eliciting the same reaction. Or maybe we are cycling up the driveway and our bicycle slips over and we scratch the paint on the car; and so on. Each of these acts appears to cause parental upset.

Now if we take the time to ponder, there is no direct physical connection between what has happened and the state of our parent’s feelings. If the wine goblet had fallen on mother’s foot, or when our bicycle slipped we had scratched father’s leg, that could be a different thing, for in such cases we could see a direct connection between accident and physical hurt.

What is really happening is that we have the notion of causation the wrong way round. Our parent’s upset is not caused by what happened before, but by what happens after they get angry. Their negative emotional reaction is a learned [not deliberate] way of psychologically manipulating us to behave in the way they wish us to behave by getting us to believe that we ‘harmed’ them by our actions. As a result we come to believe that we are somehow responsible for the emotional states of others – and vice-versa!

This concept is reinforced in our households every day. “Oh John, I am so disappointed when you don’t get good marks.” “Anne, it makes me feel a failure as a mother because you don’t mix well.” “It makes me so angry, Mike when you leave your room in such a state.”

The legacy of this myth is that I come to believe:
1. That my internal well-being is somehow determined by events in my external world, and (even worse)
2. I am somehow responsible through my actions for the emotional well-being of others.

There are other myths we hold about human behaviour that contribute to our stress, but the brevity of this article will not permit an exploration.

Note that I am not proposing that we consciously act in ’self-stressing’ ways. We are conditioned by our early parenting and by society at large to ‘live’ [and sometimes die!] by these myths. They are programmed deeply into our unconsciousness . As a result we impose on ourselves an unnecessary burden of pain and suffering, feeling dependent upon, and responsible for, things beyond our direct control. This is a major cause of stress in our society. Perhaps the best antidote to stress is to learn what it really means to be human, and replace ‘learned myths’ with reality.

At a seminar I attended recently, the presenter, intending to amuse, put up a Powerpoint slide of a poor unfortunate soul along with the caption “Sometimes the attention I get is worth the pain I inflict on myself to get it.” This, however, is hardly ever true! Much of what we call stress is indeed psychological pain we inflict upon ourselves because of our misunderstanding of human nature. By helping people understand the true nature of humanity they will become more self-accepting, more impervious to perturbations in the material world and allow others to accept responsibility for their own emotional states hence giving them a chance to also change for the better.

2 Replies to “Coming to Grips with Stress”

  1. I have pondered on this topic a lot in the past and I always have a problem with one part of it. I know that I am not responsible for someone else’s emotions however I still can not help but care how someone else feels. If my behaviour results in them feeling bad then I regret this. I know this is allowing them to control how I feel but the alternative of not caring is not acceptable to me.

    I have also wondered about management roles and stress. It seems managers are often stressed by their work because they are trying to do a good job and please those who they report to as well as those who report to them. They got appointed to management probably because they do care and as a result put in the effort to meet people’s expectations. So the question is do stressed people get promoted to management or does management create stressed people? I am sure there are plenty of people who would make very unstressed managers because they just don’t care, not sure anyone would want them in these roles though.

    For me managing stress comes down to a few simple rules.

    1. Be my own judge and set reasonable personal goals (care little of what others think of my failures or successes).
    2. Accept in advance (important to do it in advance) that I am going to stuff up some times. It makes self forgiveness a lot easier when I need it.
    3. Live in the present and focus on the one thing I am doing now. Multi-tasking is a myth. We only do one thing at a time even if we are changing that thing regularly.
    4. Have a sense of humour. 100 years after my death no one will ever know or care that I existed. Nothing in life should be taken too seriously. If you can’t have fun what’s the point.
    5. Have a network of friends who you trust so much in good times that you will believe them in bad times regardless of how distorted your thinking might be then.

    After saying all this I know that I am still susceptible to emotional turmoil caused by stress. Genetics I think still has big role in all this.

  2. I have recently acquired a book (from the American Book Shop) called Spirit Level in which 2 British epidimiologists presented a lot of data to show that the mental and physical health outcomes of ALL citizens was worse in more unequal societies. They suggest that first abject poverty needs to be eliminated but after that more wealth does not increase life expectantcy.

    They postulated that poor people in unequal societies felt disconnected from society and suffered feelings of worthlessness which resulted in increased stress and therefore poor health outcomes. Rich people they thought also suffered from the stress of guarding their treasure, (my term not their’s)They also tracked the increase in people reporting as stressed to the increase in more unequal societies commencing in the 1980’s.

    This work is consistent with report I saw in the media which quoted research showing that in Australia, at an income level of $84,000, the maximum number of people reported that they were happy.

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