Stressors are inevitable. You cannot escape stressors because anything which occurs in life has the potential to be perceived, by us humans, as stressful. Sucks to be us sometimes, right? In the last article/post we looked at avoidance coping. In the simplest of terms, avoidance coping is the directing of attention AWAY from that which is causing us distress or has the potential to cause us distress whereas approach coping is directing attention TOWARDS that which is causing us distress or has the potential to cause us distress. When you become aware that you and you alone have the power to transform arbitrary stressors into stressful events, there is no need to fear stressors. With this in mind, there are two goals of approach coping.
The first goal is to proactively reduce the frequency in which arbitrary stressors are imbued with negative significance so that the frequency in which we create stressful events is reduced. The second goal of approach coping is understanding that there are going to be times when we cannot help but to create stressful events for ourselves and, when those times occur, it is necessary for us to have healthy and adaptive ways to manage our stress responses. Having healthy stress management skills will help us to minimise the impact that stress has on our minds, bodies and emotions. Let us look at the first goal of approach coping – Managing and controlling how frequently we create stressful events for ourselves.
Unfortunately, we are likely to interpret and respond to life and its stressors using automatic default frameworks that we have unconsciously internalized from others. The manner in which we interpret or perceive stressors in the early stages of life is largely dependent upon how we have been raised to interpret and perceive the world around us. If you have a TRUST schema for example (a belief that people are generally good, people generally have good intentions, etc), you are less likely to think or perceive that people have malevolent intentions towards you versus someone raised with a MISTRUST schema/belief system (a belief that people are generally bad, people generally have bad intentions).
For example, if you have been raised to develop a trust schema/belief system, then getting bumped whilst walking down a very busy and crowded street (arbitrary stressor) is LESS LIKELY to be perceived by you as being of malevolent origins and so the arbitrary stressor is LESS LIKELY to be imbued with negative significance and LESS LIKELY to be transformed into a stressful event. Alternatively, if you have a mistrust schema (people are generally bad, people generally have bad intentions) and you are bumped whilst walking down a busy and crowded street, you are MORE LIKELY to perceive the bump as being of malevolent origin and so the arbitrary stressor is MORE LIKELY to be imbued with negative significance and MORE LIKELY to be transformed into a stressful event.
If we want to prevent these unconscious and undesired schemas and frameworks from constantly imbuing arbitrary stressors with negative significance (thus causing us to continually create stressful events for ourselves), then we must develop and create new healthier and adaptive ways of viewing and interpreting stressors and life’s occurrences/interactions. Increasing our trust schemas for example would reduce how often we imbue arbitrary stressors with negative significance (just like in the busy street example). Or practicing gratitude so that we can open ourselves up to viewing arbitrary stressors in a positive light (which won’t allow the transformation into stressful events). Or we might practice radical acceptance which is the equivalent of viewing the arbitrary stressor in a neutral light (which, again, won’t allow the stressor to transform into stressful events).
Another way that we can manage and control the likelihood and frequency with which we imbue arbitrary stressors with negative significance (so that we don’t always create stressful events) is by learning from our past mistakes. The past not only contains a lot of ‘should do’s’ but quite a lot of ‘should not do’s’. If we look into our past and we see that we have repeatedly performed a certain action, and that certain action has continually led to the creation of stressful events, and we continue to perform those actions knowing that they are again likely to lead to the creation of stressful events, we are not doing ourselves any favours. Like Einstein once said “The definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. This strategy basically follows the ‘prevention is better than a cure’ philosophy.
We can also manage and control the likelihood and frequency with which we imbue arbitrary stressors with negative significance by taking time to perceive stressors. Rather than rushing to attach significance to arbitrary stressors, we must take the time to view possible alternatives. What other ways can this arbitrary stressor be perceived or interpreted? 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 that don’t require much thought on our behalf and because they are quick, they are relied upon more and the more they are relied upon, the more they are reinforced and so the more permanent they become. Ultimately, we want to gain conscious control over how we perceive arbitrary stressors.
In saying all of this though, always seeking to prevent ourselves from imbuing arbitrary stressors with negative significance is not healthy. If there were no bad times, we would not appreciate the good times as much. There are of course times when stressful events are appropriate and even necessary (death of a loved one, etc). There are also times when we may ‘allow’ arbitrary stressors to be transformed into stressful events in order to motivate ourselves into action (before an exam for example).
The whole point of part 1 is, we don’t ALWAYS want to be imbuing arbitrary stressors with negative significance and, by consequence, we don’t ALWAYS want to be transforming arbitrary stressors into stressful events. Especially if there is no real need or purpose to do so. Chronic stress is very bad for us but, for those times when stressful events are created, we always want to manage the effect that the stress has on our bodies, minds and emotions so that they don’t overwhelm us or lead us to engage in avoidance coping. This will be the basis for part 2.