Stress is inevitable. We cannot always escape stress because anything which occurs in life has the potential to be perceived by us as stressful. Sucks to be us sometimes, right? Not all stress is bad though. Stress is an evolutionary tool which helped our ancestors to respond to threats in their environment. The problem with humans today however is that we have significantly expanded upon all of those things which could be classified as a threat. This is the power of the human brain. We can distort reality and we can convince ourselves that something is a threat and a stress when in reality all that we are encountering is an arbitrary life event which has no inherent significance until we imbue it with significance.
Think of it this way. If you roll a die and it lands on a 6, that roll of the die is simply an arbitrary life event which is the product of chance. Pure and simple. However, and this is where it gets complicated, if we attach something of significance to the die rolling a 6, we are imbuing the outcome with significance. If we gain to win $100 for example we would imbue the outcome with positive significance (Hooray. I won). If we stand to lose $100 though if the die comes up a 6 we would imbue the outcome with negative significance (damn I just lost money that I really needed).
Life and the way that we unconsciously create stress for ourselves works the same way as the die. Random arbitrary events occur in life and those life events have no significance until we imbue them with significance. If we imbue arbitrary life events with positive significance we are happy. If we imbue arbitrary life events with neutral significance we are indifferent. If we imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance we create stress. The first goal of stress management therefore is to consciously reduce the frequency in which we imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance.
By becoming more conscious and aware of ourselves and our thoughts we will reduce how often we become stressed because we will have gained control over whether we imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance (this will become clearer in just a minute). The second goal of stress management is understanding that there are going to be times when we cannot help but to imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance and, when those times occur, we have to make sure that we have healthy stress management skills in place.
Let us start by looking at the first goal of stress management – Consciously reducing how often we imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance. If you were raised in a healthy environment you likely would have developed a TRUST schema (a belief that people are generally good, people generally have good intentions, etc). As a result of this trust scheme you are less likely to think that people have malevolent intentions towards you and so you are LESS likely to imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance. Sounds reasonable right?
However, if you were raised in an unhealthy environment you are likely to have developed a MISTRUST schema (a belief that people are generally bad, people generally have bad intentions, etc). As a result of this mistrust schema you are MORE likely to imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance. Again this seems reasonable but let me break it down more. If you have a TRUST schema and you get bumped whilst walking down a very busy and crowded street (an arbitrary life event) the act of getting bumped is LESS likely to be perceived by you as being of malevolent origins and so the arbitrary life event is LESS likely to be imbued with negative significance and so you are less likely to become stressed because you got bumped whilst walking down the street.
However, if you have a mistrust schema and you get bumped whilst walking down a busy and crowded street, you are MORE likely to perceive the bump as being of malevolent origin and so you are MORE likely to imbue the arbitrary life event with negative significance and so you are MORE likely to become stressed about being bumped. Can you see how becoming consciously aware of your schemas and their types might help you to reduce the frequency in which you imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance and so become stressed?
Trust and mistrust schemas though are not the only cognitive frameworks we can have which can influence the frequency in which we imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance. Let’s look at the cognitive distortion known as ‘catastrophic thinking’. Do you think always jumping to the worst possible conclusion is more or less likely to influence whether you imbue an arbitrary life event with negative significance? Chances are more. The thing is though certain arbitrary life events occur in which it is wholly appropriate to imbue that life event with negative significance (a loved one passing away, divorce, etc).
In these instances you must have a range of skills and techniques which help you to ease the impact of the stress response on your body, mind, emotions and life. This is the second goal of stress management. You must always have a way to ‘switch off’ a stress response. In saying this though, one cannot get away with saying “Well I have a range of stress management tools which allows me to switch off stress so who cares if I don’t reduce the frequency in which I imbue arbitrary life events with negative significance”. This is a dangerous misjudgment because we can suffer from chronic stress (allostatic overload) if we are constantly putting out spot fires rather than preventing constant fires from occurring in the first place.