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Stress Awareness Insight #5 - How many to Tango?

Stress is fascinating. The way we understand stress has changed over the years. For years, psychologists and thinkers approached stress pretty one-dimensionally: something stressful happens that affects someone, and that someone feels stress. Aaaand… done. (*slap hands clean*cue satisfied look*)

In recent decades, however, we noticed that it isn’t so simple. Different people respond to the same stimuli differently – so it can’t be a simple one-to-one causal relationship. A person might respond to the same stimulus differently at different times (of day, of life, of circumstances). The picture that emerged was more interactive and dynamic. Stress isn’t just a matter of something poking us and we feel it. There is a kind of transaction that takes place.

In the “transactional model” of stress things happen all the time – they aren’t the big deal. Where stress starts is when our minds observe the situation and immediately (pre-consciously, even) assess the nature of the “threat” (for lack of a better word). We unconsciously compare what is happening with all the other times we’ve ever experienced anything like this, in order to know what it is and how bad it is. We base this assessment not on an objective evaluation of this isolated incident - “objective” doesn’t exist, we are always “subjective,” relying on our experience and perspective to guide us.

If we bump our hip against the counter as we pass, we know it isn’t a big deal, it has happened before and it didn’t pose a threat. The first time we get stung by a bee, though, all we know are the pictures of allergic reactions and emergency rooms, and we get really worried really fast. This “primary assessment” (because it is first chronologically) establishes the nature or severity of the threat by comparing it to what we have experienced before. If these kinds of things have been really bad in the past, that tells us something about this experience.

Quick on the heels of that primary assessment is a “secondary assessment” (because it is chronologically second): our ability to cope with the threat. Our mind races through all the times we’ve confronted something like this as puts together a picture of our likely success. Sometimes that’s great (being out of toothpaste… no big deal, I’ve survived this kind of thing before, I’ll use mouthwash and pick up some toothpaste at the convenience store before work). Sometimes it isn’t (the last time my co-worker came up to my desk with that look, she almost made me cry, she was so hurtful… I don’t know if I can take this again).

Before we are even consciously aware of a situation, our subconscious has already determined the severity of the threat and our ability to successfully cope with it. If we’re lucky and our mind says “no problem, we’ve done this before, no big deal,” then we feel confident and resourced. If, on the other hand, our mind says “this is bad, you can’t handle this,” well… “stress” might be a kind term for the feeling that results.

Stress is not simply stimulus-response – it is an intricate dance between our past experiences and our subconscious belief in ourselves. It is why different people respond to the same things differently, or why even we can respond differently at different times under different circumstances. But it doesn’t stop there.

Now that we have this unconscious double-assessment (before we’ve even really started to experience something, even!), we feel stress-related feelings (anxiety, discouragement, frustration, anger, resentment, despondency, and so on). These feelings lead to stress-related behaviors (retreat, procrastination, back-biting, giving up, phoning it in, yelling, etc.). These behaviors then result in consequences (relationships, employment, trust issues, further resentment, disciplinary actions, what have you). Then, this whole cycle of experience (assessment of the threat – assessment of ability to cope – stress feelings – stress behaviors – social consequences) informs the next time we encounter that same situation. So now it is a little bit worse than before (“remember what happened last time,” our discouraged subconscious says to us), and we descend into a negative self-reinforcing loop.

There seems no way out!

Except this: notice that this whole thing has been happening inside us. This cycle has very little to do with whatever that actual inspiring circumstance was. It has more to do with our belief in ourselves and how that plays out. We make ourselves stressed by the credence we give that thing, and where we put ourselves in relation to it. So we can affect it.

At each juncture in that cycle is a chink in the armor, a place of potential disruption, an opportunity to change the narrative. How do we do that?

Tune in on Friday for a start.


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