Is STRESS all in our heads?

Sometimes the slightest thing can trigger a reaction in us that is completely out of proportion to the offending event itself.  This is more likely to happen to me if I am under pressure and feel generally anxious and vulnerable.  I get ‘tipped over the edge’ more readily.

At other times, we are able to handle not just little annoyances, but major emergencies, with almost no sense of effort.  We become the epitome of sangfroid or equipoise.

Do some things that your work colleagues find stressful seem like no big deal to you?  Are you ever enraged by a situation that everyone else seems to be taking in their stride?


What’s going on here?

Most people believe that external situations or people cause their stress.

But this is not accurate.  If it were, then everybody who was exposed to a particular stressor would be affected in the same way.

Stress researcher and psychologist Richard Lazarus said that stress is a two way process – a transaction between a person and his or her environment.  So stress does not reside in either the situation or the person.  It is a product of the interaction between the two.

So what is stress anyway?  Dr Lazarus defined psychological stress as:

“a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being”.

So in a potentially stressful situation, you are making two appraisals:

  • is the event insignificant or threatening
  • if it is threatening, can I cope with it?

If you appraise an event as threatening to your wellbeing and beyond your ability to handle, then it will be taxing i.e. stressful to you.  But exactly how much stress you experience is again up to you.  For example, an assignment that you know is well beyond your competence could be less stressful, and even positive, if you choose to view it as a learning opportunity.

Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology, says it is not the potential stressor itself but how you perceive it and then how you handle it that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress.

Personality traits play a factor in how we perceive.  Dr Seligman says that people are either optimistic or pessimistic in their thinking about why bad events happen to them.  Pessimists tend to blame themselves.  They think that the bad event will last a long time and affect many areas of their lives.  In other words, they catastrophise: “It’s my fault, I aways knew I was stupid and this proves it, I can never do anything right”.  By contrast, optimists tend not to blame themselves, or if they do, they view the bad event as a temporary setback.  Their language is more in the nature of “Well I failed this time, but next time will be better, I’ll make some changes and things will work out”.


Do you recognise this pattern of thinking in yourself or others?

It’s not hard to see that a pessimist may experience more stress in response to an assignment that is well beyond their competence.  If our way of seeing the world is characterised by fear or hopelessness then we are more likely to be overwhelmed.  Perfectionists, or those with ‘impostor syndrome’ may too feel more threatened by the potential here for failure, than a person with an optimistic attributional style who views the assignment as a challenge.



It is not so much the stressors in our lives but how we see them and what we do with them, how we are in relationship to them, that determines how much we are at their mercy.


What’s great about this?  How can mindfulness help?

If we can change the way we see, we can change the way we respond and thereby reduce our stress and its short and long term consequences for our health and wellbeing.

I’m not trying to absolve toxic people or suggest that employers shouldn’t invest in supportive cultures designed to buffer employee resilience to stress.  Of course they should.

But, if we accept that there are many ways of seeing a situation and many ways of handling it, then we immediately gain more control over the things that cause us stress.  We are not powerless, sitting ducks for stress.  Faced with life’s daily hassles, we have the power to modulate the amount of stress we experience.

The first step is recognising when you are facing a potentially stressful event.   Pause and allow yourself to experience rather than ignore or resist what you are going through.  Notice any thoughts you are having and what sensations you are feeling in your body.

In mindfulness, we learn that our thoughts are not facts, they are simply mental events.  We also become aware that the mind has a bias towards negativity.  Its job is to alert us to potential danger.

How often do you worry about something and find it is nowhere near as bad as you thought it would be?  Research has shown that 85% of the things we worry about never happen.  In addition, we tend to over estimate how bad something is likely to be, and under estimate our ability to cope.  Our mind is teflon for the good and velcro for the bad.  In a challenging situation our mind tells us stories based on the worst case scenario and selects memories of times that things went bad.

Through our mindfulness practice, we gain the ability to recognise and therefore defuse from these negative thoughts and habitual stories.  We see that our perception of the situation may not be what is actually occurring.  By cultivating our ability to perceive our experience in its full context we can avoid getting caught up in our automatic reaction and respond more wisely.

Try this next time you are stuck in traffic.  You have at least two options.  You can sit and become angry at the delay, certain that it is going to ruin your day.  Your stress levels rise with each passing second.  Or you can decide to accept the situation, turn the radio on or look around, knowing that getting worked up won’t un-jam the traffic.  From the same potential stressor there are two different experiences available, depending on how you choose to perceive and respond to the event.



How do we avoid getting to that place I mentioned at the start, teetering on the edge of overreaction?  We can be more resilient and resistant to stress if we pay attention to our physical and psychological wellbeing during the times we are not taxed or overwhelmed.  Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it making deposits into the biological and psychological bank account.

In addition to meditation, if you can eat well the majority of the time, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and enjoy loving and supportive relationships, this will make you more resilient and buffer your experience of stress.

Janette Dines



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