We all understand what someone means when they complain of feeling stressed.
That gut feeling of panic. The sense of nausea. The feeling of being trapped and wanting to explode. The constriction of every muscle in your body. The primitive feeling of fear so vivid you can taste it. The inability to deal with anything properly because you are so focused on overcoming this gripping tension.
There are millions of people around the world suffering this condition, this diminshment of their life, but without a clear definition of what the problem really is. So before we go into how to overcome this emotional disease let’s look at the various ways people explain stress and try to agree on a version that will make sense and enable us to move forward into the how to get a grip on handling stress.
Searching For a Definition of Stress
Definitions of stress typically come in three forms;
Stress As A Stimulus
Those that see stress as a stimulus. So here stress is the thing that happens to a person. This approach can be summed up by some of the earliest Researchers into stress.
Holmes and Rahe in the 1960’s developed the Life Events Scale. They believed that your level of stress was dependent on what happened to you.
So if you moved house and job in the same year, you must inevitably be stressed. Yet this takes no account of your ability to cope with stress or the fact that you may have moved from a high stress lifestyle with a demanding and bullying Boss into a more relaxed lifestyle and a calmer way of life. Many people feel relieved and less tense after a major change in their lifestyle.
This kind of definition of stress completely disregards the potential and ability we have to mediate and control our response to what happens. It takes a very mechanistic view of people. As if we all responded equally to the same event.
It is true that many people do live their lives by the default beliefs and customs of their culture. And so many of them, most in fact, can reliably be predicted to respond to stressful circumstances in much the same way.
However the truth is that we do have the choice to overide the default response and depending on our interpretation of the event respond in a variety of ways to a stressful situation. And so there is a range of people, from those who have developed effective ways to cope with even the most stressful events to those who panic over the slightest problem.
Stress As A Response
Then there are those definitions that see stress as a response. For example, David Statt refers to the physical response:
‘‘the human body is biologically programmed to react to challenges from the environment by mobilizing its resources. We can either confront the challenge and fight it or get away from it as fast as possible.
The choice in other words is ‘fight or flight’, whichever we deem to be more appropriate in the situation”.
It’s an entirely true statement. However, the problem with defining stress as a physical response though, is that as Robert Sarpolsky says, ‘stress is naturally a three minute event. Then you’re over it or you’re over’.
The final type of explanations of what stress is comes from those that see stress as an interaction between a person and their environment. Perhaps the most commonly accepted definition of stress falls into this category. This definition of stress originated from the work of Richard S Lazarus.
Stress is seen as: “being a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize”.
In other words, it’s not what happens. It’s not the response to what happens. But it’s what happens after we decide that we can’t cope with the situation.
This is a pretty good definition of stress. It highlights the interaction between what happens, our interpretation of what is needed and whether we can access those resources.
However I still think it comes up a little short. It’s dry, bland and it doesn’t really give us a way of looking at the process by which we become stressed.
So I want to propose that we look at stress as a process we do in response to a stimulus. This way we are able to see what we do to become stressed and so understand how to prevent stress from occurring in the future and reduce it’s effect on us now.
Stress As A Journey
Life is a journey. We steer our course through life by what we pay attention to. So as we are travelling through life, we encounter situations.
How much mental resource we have available at the time, determines how broadly and deeply we interpret the situation. Situations are what they are. Often we only create stress from an incomplete perception of a situation.
We think Janet is annoyed with us because of a look or comment, yet really she is just having a bad day and didn’t realise she was being abrupt. This is stress created solely from our interpretation.
The diagram below shows that we process events from stimulus, to perception, to available coping resources and finally our projection of what we see the outcome to be.
In what I call a high bandwidth state, we are able to see the full details of the situation and so we are better able to process the events. We understand what the cause is and are able to think through a solution.
In a lower bandwidth state though, panic sets in and we do not see the full range of the event, we just lock onto a narrow, and threatening, definition, we are unable to think creatively and resourcefully and so we cannot come up with a way of dealing with the issue and therefore our projection of the outcome frightens us. This fear then narrows our bandwidth, until we get caught in a negative spiralling of panic.
Bandwidth is the measure I use to refer to the how broad and deep we are able to pay attention to a situation. If you think of Characters, real or imagined, that never seem stressed, such as Buddha, Jesus, Yoda from Star Wars, Dumbledore from Harry Potter and so on, you’ll see they have more bandwidth, more resillience, more creativity, more general ability to overcome difficulties.
photo credit: Simon Zirkunow
They are able to focus fully on a situation, see all the angles and causative factors. And so they don’t become stressed. Instead they calmly weigh up the situation and decide what the best course of action will be.
If you were to take each individual situation in your life, break it down into bite-sized components and look at them with your full bandwidth capacity, I’ll bet nothing would stress you. The trouble is that your attention is partly still on past situations and so everything gets knotted together into a big mess that seems overwhelming to look at, let alone unravel.
And so as you have less bandwidth available and your emotional sensitivity is more acute, you interpret more situations as stressful, further reducing your bandwidth capacity and so becoming more and more overwhelmed.
Having interpreted a situation as a threat, you then look at your resources available to cope with the threat. With a cool, calm and unrushed head youmay see lots of options. Just as you can always think of smart replies… after the moment passes. But with less bandwidth available, you forget the full range of possibilities and your ability for creative solutionsis almost completely shut down.
Next you look at the probable outcome. Again with reduced bandwidth and feeling already insecure and fearful, it’s likely that the outcome you will see will be negative. Since fear is constricting, this then has the effect of further constricting your bandwidth.
And so without a solution to move past this situation, you become stuck there until you can overcome it. Caught in a vicious circle you will go through the steps in your mind again and again, until eventually you increase your bandwidth enough to find new interpretations, new solutions and or new resources that help you to move past the situation.
Advanced Stress Management Guide Contents
What Is Stress?
What Are The Costs of Stress?
What Are The Effects of Stress?
What Are The Causes of Stress?
How Do People Generally Cope With Stress?
The Mindset Shift: It’s Ok To Be Stressed, But Get Over It Quickly
The Secret To Emotional Stress Management
Reduce Stress And Avoid The Stress Tax
How To Deal With Stress
The Way To Relieve Stress
The Law Of Fairness
Pyrrhic Victory And The Value Of Losing