Stress occurs when we perceive environmental stressors as stressful and that stress then exceeds our ability to cope (i.e., we become overwhelmed – stressed out). Stressors are arbitrary events which, depending on the circumstances, have the potential to be perceived as stressful. Stressors are the reason why not everyone responds stressfully to the same events. Have you ever been with your significant other or your best friend and you have a big occasion lined up, like a wedding or a birthday party, and you are running around like a chicken with its head cut off whilst the other person is relaxing on the lounge watching tv without a care in the world?
Our perceptions of stressors and our responses to stress, varies between people. What is stressful to you may not be stressful to another. Like I said earlier, stressors are just arbitrary events which remain arbitrary and powerless unless and until we perceive them in a particular way (i.e., as having a negative or significant impact on our lives - stressful). Losing you keys is an example of a stressor. You will only become stress depending on how you view losing your keys. If you have several spare sets of keys, you may not be concerned therefore you don’t stress out. If you know that you don’t have spare keys, or the money to replace the keys, losing your keys is going to be perceived as a stressful event.
This is why people who are suffering from adversity, trauma, poverty, lack of support, etc are more susceptible to perceiving arbitrary events (stressors) as stressful. They have enough on their plate as it is. Having to pay for a new set of keys may not be such a hassle if they didn’t have their rent and car payments due the next week. Losing a set of keys may not be so stressful if you didn’t have an ex stalking and harassing you and now you have to wonder if they have stolen the keys from you. It can also be extremely invalidating to have someone say to you “Just calm down. I wouldn’t stress out about losing my keys so why are you”?
Unfortunately, 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 likely to experience unhealthy stress on a regular basis, 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 1. Novelty, 2. Unpredictability, 3. Threat to the ego and 4. 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. 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. Stress exposes our weakness and vulnerabilities. Stress forces our ego to learn and adapt regardless of how unwilling a participant it is. 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 distinguish between the reasons 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 then may become a threat to your ego. Losing your keys may trigger only the unpredictable, familiar or novel (depending on how many times in the past you have lost your keys) aspects 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).