Recently in a workshop for a group of senior managers and execs, all was going well in my opening introduction until I stated that there is no such thing as psychological stress, only our interpretation of it.
Heads turned to look at each other in the group and three hands raised amongst the mutters and looks of contempt for my statement.
The first reaction from a participant came with a statement and question, ‘ What you just said is wrong… You’re saying there’s no such thing as stress?
Correct, I replied. If you’re experiencing stress, it’s because you’re choosing to do so, and…well, YOU are making ‘stress’ up.
The term “stress”, as it is currently used was first put forward by renowned Medical Dr and researcher, Hans Selye in 1936, when he defined it as,
“the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”.
He also later described it as,
“The rate of wear and tear on the body”, and admitted that stress is in fact very hard to describe.
This difficulty to define stress arises in part because each of us does it in different ways.
For many people, the experience of stress is one of an unpleasant threat or event, when in fact, many commonly enjoyed activities also act as a ‘nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change’. Common examples of ‘positive stressors’ could be watching an exciting movie, riding on a roller coaster, playing a favourite sport, diving into an ice-cold lake on a hot day, giving a public performance that we are highly capable of, being given a surprise party and exercising to high energy music to name just a few of many possible examples.
There are also many seemingly unavoidable negative stressors from our environment, such as air pollution, too much intense sunlight, sudden loud noise, junk foods, pathogens, radiation, prolonged darkness (as experienced in long northern winters), EMFs from computers and phones, bright blue light at night time and so on.
Irrespective of our emotional robustness, our biology responds to these environmental stressors with increased wear and tear, or an energy consuming response. None of these environmental inputs are a given of course. You could potentially move to a place with clean air and foods, no digital devices and plenty of winter sunshine. But for most people, the main source of what we wrongly class as stress is the endless day-to-day activities that many of us find ourselves confronted with.
If you ask people when they experience stress, it is likely you will receive a variety of replies, such as:
When I have too many work projects to do.
When I don’t have enough money.
When I over commit to social activities.
When my kids are sick.
When I sit in my daily traffic jam/commute.
Dealing with my boss.
Telling someone bad news.
Having too many emails in my inbox.
When other people are unhappy.
When I listen to the news/politics.
Seeing how much more successful, others are than me.
We could go on and on with many similar events from which people make stress.
However, the difference between these assumed ‘stressors’ and those on the previous environmental list is that these alleged causes of stress, though experienced by millions of people every day, are only a form of stressor when we interpret them to be or internally relate to them as stressors.
Our experiences are made from meaning
In the languages that we each use there is no inherent meaning to any word or sequence of words other than what we attribute and agree upon. Words act as little signposts to help us communicate and navigate our shared and often very different versions of reality. For example, in English, the word ‘jumper’ means a wooly sweater. In American English, it means to jump, maybe in an attempt to end a life. A ‘gift’ in the English language is something to look forward to. In German it means poison.
The term ‘Barf’ in American may conjure images of Homer Simpson roaring forth some chewed doughnuts. In Hindi and Urdu, it means ‘snow’.
In a similar way that there is no inherent meaning in the words that we use, there is also no inherent meaning in the experiences we have, that is until we use our personal values, judgments, beliefs and past experiences apply meaning to the event.
If you happen to be someone who has grown up in a culture that walks around naked in your environment all day, it could be unpleasant to enter a culture that wears clothes from neck to toe. The opposite – someone who has worn clothes all their lives having to walk publicly naked, is equally as likely to create a shift in the way the person feels.
A person who enjoys climbing mountains does not experience the same sensations as someone who is scared of heights.
A neonatal nurse who is used to the sound of babies crying is not experiencing the sensation of the first time parent.
A female martial artist is unlikely to experience as strong a sensation as untrained young women might when walking alone down a dark street.
Not that we want to eliminate all immediate sensations that could lead to stress. Mountains and some dark streets ARE dangerous and those signals serve an important function. The important ability is that of discerning between real danger and that which only feels like it is.
The vast majority of daily contexts are not inherently stressful, as is radiation, extreme cold weather or air pollution. For the most part, it is our interpretation of everyday events and contexts from which we create our experience.
This is not to say there aren’t many high-pressure contexts, or rather contexts in which a consistently alert, focused and effective behavioral operating level is required. If you’re on a Frontline role, having bullets or babies to dodge and deliver certainly requires more attention than many other career positions. And in today’s fast-paced world, many of us are inundated with a seemingly endless requirement to attend both minor and major incidents and tasks, some actually life threatening, and many that simply feel like they are.
So how do we recover quickly from difficulties or shield against difficulties in the first place, like an immunity that resists a pathogen?
For many people, the experience of stress is one in which they attempt to manage and react to the stressors in their environment or thinking of those stressors after the response has already taken place in the body. Unfortunately, this kind of ‘ stress management’ is often too late, the game is up and the individual’s biology is triggered in varying intensities of a fight, flight or freeze state, preparing the body with a release of hormones so that muscles are energized, attention and cognition are focused and the human animal is ready to respond to a potentially life or death threat/stimuli, which in the modern world, rarely arises.
If you consider the past, present or future contexts in which you most experience stress and lack of clarity, it’s highly likely that your relationship to that context is associated, meaning that you see, hear and feel fully in your body the event you are in. As an example, when a person who has been in an accident is asked to recall the event, they will either do so by recalling it as if they were back in the event (associated), or they may recall the event as if an observer to it (dissociated), in which they can provide all of the information about what they see and hear, but without the strong emotional response to the associated view.
Individuals who are able to dissociate as and when they choose to have an incredibly useful skill that provides freedom to choose how they feel and responds in any given situation.
In life, it is important to have the choice to both associate and dissociate to the events we experience.
When our loved ones show us affection or we happen to be in the presence of great art, beauty or brilliance, it would be a waste to not fully experience such a moment. Conversely, if we are in a high-pressure environment, with huge demands being made upon us, we will benefit from having a dissociation method that enables space to think and act clearly, whilst still retaining knowledge of the importance of the situation.
In the following two videos, I present two patterns to dissociate from contexts that you may interpret as stressful.
The Body Scan with peripheral vision and tongue drop is useful in the moment for quickly accessing a relaxed physiology and switching off internal dialogue. You can use it at the first sensation of a move into a stressed state.
Similarly, at those first sensations, you can step into the observer/3rd position and take a more objective view on the event or situation. In our resilience training workshops, participants use both the body scan and observer position to change their state and get a more objective view upon events that typically present as stressful. When we regularly dissociate from our reactions and habitual interpretations, as well as guiding our physiology into a relaxed state, we are training ourselves to have an entirely different relationship with the world, and the perception of what stress really is or is not.
Ultimately, we lose nothing and gain much by making a move to adjust our view of seemingly stressful events in a way that works for us. It’s mostly better to choose to experience the bumps in the road as opportunities to be our best, learn and grow (add your own positive interpretation), instead of mountains that are going to avalanche at any moment.