Stress is one of the “buzzwords” of modern life. In my clinical work with clients, I found that they regularly described themselves as being “stressed” in all different kinds of situations. I came to believe it to be a buzzword that limits our ability to understand the life predicaments people experience. As one author notes, it is “a scapegoat explanation” that glosses over a clear view of a situation and muddies one’s reaction to that situation. There are three serious pragmatic problems with the idea of “stress” as we commonly use it:
- It confounds (mixes up, fails to distinguish) the nature of the difficult situation we are in with our personal, idiosyncratic emotional reaction to the situation
- We tend to avoid addressing our own personal reaction by focusing on the “stressful situation”
- Once we label a situation as “stressful”, we fail to further specify what about the situation is problematic for us
There are a hundred of sites you can find (e.g. Stress Management- Helpguide.org, Top 10 Stress Management Techniques-Santa Clara University, Five Tips to Help Manage Stress-American Psychological Association) to manage your stress, none of which addresses or challenges the way the concept of stress is used.
You can take a look at The Stress Myth by Serge Doublet, Ph.D., reviewed by the International Epidemiological Association, for a book that is one of the few serious attempts to unpack the concept of stress, which is used so mindlessly in a wide range of disciplines.
The concept of ‘stress’ is used in lay and scientific accounts to describe a whole host of reactions to a whole host of events. Stress is typically described simultaneously in three different ways: (1) a type of stimulus, (2) a ‘non-specific’ physiological response, or (3) a combination of the two. These three different definitions result in a circular definition: stress is something which produces a stress response; the stress response is what is produced by a ‘stressor’.
Dr. Doublet challenges the notion that stress is a non-specific physiological response to any kind of ‘stressor’, noting there is little evidence for such a non-specific physiological response. In other words, different kinds of difficult situations produce different kinds of affective or emotional responses.
In addition, while ‘stress’ is clearly an abstract concept, people (lay and scientific) who want to use it regard it as something concrete in life, i.e. ‘stress’ is a thing.
My approach to helping people who identify their experience as “stressful” is be more specific in addressing difficult or problematic situations people face. Here are the steps I suggest people take in such situations:
- Concretely describe the specifics of the situation (e.g. my husband seems more engaged with the children than he is with me; my wife spends more time than I would like her to on-line doing work activity when we are at home in the evening; my boss will not ok telecommuting at work, which means I have to commute over an hour each way to work; my apartment neighbor persists in playing his music loud enough for me to hear it)
- Identify your personal “interpretation” of the situation (e.g. my husband “ignores” me; my wife doesn’t “respect” me enough; my boss is being a ”s_ _ _t”; my neighbor is being really “selfish” )
- Identify what feeling or emotion goes along with your interpretation of the situation (I get hurt and anxious about our relationship when he doesn’t pay attention to me; I get very angry when she is on-line when I am with her; I am so “pissed” (a euphemism for being angry) at his inconsiderateness; I am so angry I could choke him)
Reacting personally (Step 2 and 3) in problematic situations is quite automatic1. So you have to make a decision about if and how you want to manage situations before you get into them. In other words, you have to give up the buzzword of stress as a way to think about these kinds of situations. And you have to be willing to be self-reflective about your reactions. Here are some examples of “stressful situations” with how they may be interpreted with the associated emotions followed by a possible description of the event.
You might look back on a recent day to find a few such “stressful situations”, sorting out your interpretation along with the associated emotional reaction. You might also think about what you did in these situations. When we act out our interpretations of events (which always has some negative emotion attached), we will always act badly (e.g. criticize, yell, withdraw) and never really address the situation. When you act out of your reaction, you are trying to manage that reaction not address the issue.
Once you have identified a couple of situations, try to recast your personal reaction into an actual description of the situation. Then you can brainstorm solutions, including consulting with others about what to do. Sometimes you will find that once you stop interpreting the situation and describe it, there is less of a problem to be solved.
1I purposely use the idea of reacting automatically rather than characterizing such reactions as normal. When you say something is normal, you really don’t have to examine it nor correct it.
Doublet, PhD, Serge. (2000). The Stress Myth. MO: Science & Humanities Press
Barrett, Lisa F. What Emotions Are (And Aren’t). NYT, Sunday Review, 7/31/2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/opinion/sunday/what-emotions-are-and-arent.html?_r=0)
Charlton, Bruce G. (1992). Stress. Journal of Medical Ethics, (18), 156-159. (http://jme.bmj.com/content/18/3/156.full.pdf)