Breaking Stress into Its Parts

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I would like to define some terms.  Stress is a vague term.  I think that one of the most important principles that I have learned is the stress is not the problem.  It is your reaction to it that causes unpleasantness and an energy drain.  I am going to define the situation, which causes a reaction, as the stressor.  Although in this chapter I am referring mostly to negative emotions, keep in mind that positive events such as weddings, buying a new house, new career changes, etc. are also stressors.

I want to emphasize that the reaction (your thoughts) to the stressor is the most important part of the picture.  People, though, often identify with their thoughts.  It has been claimed by many over many centuries that you are not your thoughts. The nervous system is extraordinarily complex.  A certain percentage of your thoughts will be random, bizarre, and even unacceptable.   I want to you to look at your thoughts in reaction to the stressor as separate from who you are.

Let’s take an example of your child coming home late again well after his or her curfew.  As you confront your child, he or she might let you know in a very efficient manner what kind of human being you are.  Predictably, and understandably so, you react with anger.

The stressor was your child coming in late with his or her aggressive, defensive response.  In and of itself, the situation is not an energy drain.  You were not physically harmed. It is your reaction of anger that is a significant energy drain.  As you have not separated your reaction from the stressor, it all ends up feeling like one ugly event.  Then as most people do, you identify with your thoughts.  So now you are the angry parent.  By developing an awareness of the various parts of the interaction, you can more effectively deal with it.  Conversely, the fallout from a situation handled poorly can carry over into other aspects of your relationship for days, weeks, or even months.

Another example I frequently use in clinic is one in regards to driving.  I ask the question, “If you are cut off in traffic by another car, what causes to you to feel stressed? You weren’t involved in an accident.  What is your reaction if that person who cut in front of you then flips you off?  Was it the situation or your reaction to it that is upsetting you?”

When you drive, there will be certain interactions with other drivers that will be less than ideal.  You cannot control that.  Why are you going to give an inconsiderate person the power to ruin your day?  That being said, I have a difficult time myself when I am behind a driver who won’t make a legal right at a red light.  It is my opportunity to practice what I am writing about.

An important step in dealing with stressful situations is to create an awareness of the components of the circumstances. It is important to: 1) separate your reaction (thoughts) from a given stressor and 2) separate you from your thoughts.  You are not your thoughts.  The end result is the stressor, and you are on the “opposite side of the room.”  The reaction (your thoughts) to the stressor is in the “middle of the room.”  By separating your thoughts from the stressor and your thoughts from who you are, you can clearly see your reaction to the stressor as a separate entity.  You then have a choice in figuring out how to more effectively deal with your reaction to the stressful event.

Anxiety and Anger are not who you are.  They are thoughts and resultant emotions that exist in you separately from your value system and how you choose to live your life.  Until you can separate these emotions from your core identity, the drain in the tub will be wide open. It is the goal of the stress management section to put a permanent plug in that drain.