Does stress drive you NUTS?

Jason Brien.

Stress is a common life experience which we can never truly escape. Small amounts of short-term stress can help motivate us to become more resilient in life and both short- and long-term stress has the potential to help us grow and mature as people. Whilst it may seem unfair that some of us are more susceptible to stress than others, there are certain characteristics of stress which unites us all. The reason why we stress out can be better understood using the N.U.T.S framework. NUTS refers to novelty, unpredictability, threat to ego and sense of control.

Novelty – Any stressor which is new to us has the potential to be perceived as stressful. This is related to the old adage “Been there, done that”. If you haven’t ‘been there, done that’ before, you won’t necessarily be confident in your ability to adapt in response to the stressor. What I mean is, until you start to feel your way through the stressful event, until you become more confident in applying all that you have learnt and experienced in the past (assuming that those past skills and experiences are transferable to the current situation), you are likely to feel stressed. Novelty can also fuel the threat to ego but I will explain that later.

Unpredictability – This aspect of stress can cover both novel and familiar stressors. Novel stressors can be unpredictable because we have never encountered them before. They just pop out of nowhere and jump scare us. Likewise, familiar stressors can be unpredictable if we didn’t expect or predict their arrival or if we haven’t experienced a particular stressor in a long time. Look at the way childhood trauma sneaks up on some of us. We are confused by past trauma because we often have the ‘been there, done that’, belief. We thought the past trauma was done and dusted but here it is again unexpectedly.

Threat to the ego – Our ego is our sense of ‘I’. It is our identity. It is our way of interacting with ourselves and the world around us. Stress which threatens our ego, mocks our ego. Stress disrupts our perceptions of omnipotence and omniscience (I am God and I know all). Stress forces the ego to look at what it is not capable of and so exposes our weakness and vulnerabilities. Stress forces our ego to learn and adapt regardless of how unwilling a participant it may be. One response to stress can be the deployment of narcissistic defences (cognitive distortions). Cognitive distortions allow the ego to unjustly and incorrectly maintain its omnipotence and omniscience. Rather than allowing the experiences of stress to help the ego to learn and mature, cognitive distortions keep the ego in an undeveloped and childlike state – the essence of arrested development.

Sense of control – Perceived control determines whether we evaluate stressors as stressful. We can mislead ourselves in this regard though. Sometimes we can be overconfident and we can give ourselves more credit than we truly deserve. That is, we may encounter a stressor, evaluate it incorrectly (no reason to be stressed) and then suffer the consequences of that faulty evaluation. Not studying properly before an exam is a perfect example of this. The exam may be on a topic which you are familiar with, so you don’t perceive the exam as stressful and so you don’t see the need to study. Come results time though, you may see how you have actually had less control than you first believed. Sense of control can be related to self-efficacy and self-efficacy is a core component of self-esteem (our perceptions of our ego).

Keeping the N.U.T.S framework in mind can help you to understand why you might be feeling stressed and so you can manage your responses to stress more effectively. None of these four aspects necessarily occur in isolation. Each aspect can influence another. For example, a novel stressor which is also unpredictable will likely challenge your sense of control which may then become a threat to your ego. Losing your keys may trigger only the unpredictable, familiar or novel  aspects (depending on how many times in the past you have lost your keys) but may not disrupt your sense of control (unless you have to pay for a new set of keys which you don’t have the money for) or be a threat to your ego (unless you experience embarrassment, etc). 

We can always manage and control the likelihood and frequency with which we experience stress by taking the time to assess stressors properly by making sure that we view all possible alternatives. You can save yourself a lot of future stress simply by taking the time to ask yourself “Is losing my keys really such a big deal”? This strategy requires cognitive flexibility and it requires quite a lot of hard work and practice if it is something that we are not used to doing. Rigid and inflexible thinking is easy on the brain as it does not require much time or energy. These are why schemas and cognitive distortions are deemed mental shortcuts. They are quick solutions and the more they are relied upon, the more they are reinforced and so the more permanent they become.

Some models of stress view stress as the result of transactions between people and their environments (from which stressors arise). That is, a stressor in the environment interacts with a person who appraises/perceives the event as stressful, experiences stress (physiological changes in the body) and responds with a coping activity which may or may not change the environmental stressor and its impact upon the person. Two such ways of managing transactional stress are emotion-focused coping and problem-solving coping. Emotion-focused coping is a type of stress management that attempts to reduce negative emotions such as embarrassment, fear, anxiety, depression, etc. Problem-focused coping on the other hand targets the causes of stress in practical ways which will result in reduced stress. Problem focused strategies aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stressor.

Generally speaking, problem-focused coping is better than emotion-focused coping as it removes the cause of the stress. Emotion-focused coping is better for those situations which are beyond our control. For those irritating people that you have no choice but to interact with (work colleagues, etc) or for the families that you cannot escape. In these situations, it is necessary to manage our negative emotions and thoughts in order to reduce our stress. That’s not to say though that we cannot use problem-focused coping in these situations. Both assertiveness and personal boundaries are a form of problem-focused coping. Not everyone understands and respects assertiveness and personal boundaries though and at those times you must protect your sanity at all costs.