The word stress is less useful in understanding a stressed person’s predicament than identifying its causes. Sometimes the causes of stress (stressors) are easy to identify but when stressors are built into unconscious traits of our personalities, they are harder to find and heal. Reflection on our thought processes can offer insight into our emotional processes. Increase awareness of these automatic thoughts and underlying emotions through reflection, can help begin to ease stress sometimes even in stressful situations.
The word stress has a number of meanings. The online oxford living dictionary offers the following: ‘pressure or tension exerted on a material object’, ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’ or ‘particular emphasis or importance’. In general, the sense of the word stress is of pressure. In relation to people’s emotions, someone stressed is someone feeling pressured unpleasantly and there can be many factors that make a person feel pressured.
When we say ‘I’m feeling stressed’, we are really describing the impact of one or more stressors causing us to feel overwhelmed, worried, anxious and tired. If one stressor is strong, it can magnify the effects of other stressors. If, for example, we are working long hours under pressure to meet professional deadlines and having problems in our social and family lives the problems in both work and home life can seem ‘bigger’ than they would have by themselves. The symptoms of stress themselves can magnify the effects of subsequent stressors; if you’re tired you are likely to cope less well with stressful situations and so become more stressed than you would if you weren’t as tired.
In theory, reducing stress is a simple matter of easing the stress factors but it’s often more easily said than done.. If you are not getting enough sleep or healthy food then rest more and eat better. If you are exercising too hard or working too many hours, go easy on the gym and leave work on time. Most of the time, people balance their lives well enough to avoid excessive stress by instinct. Sometimes although the causes of stress are obvious, it’s not always practically possible to remove or ease tangible stressors (for example if working to a tight workplace deadline or training for a high level sporting event). Even when it is possible to eliminate or reduce tangible stressors some people struggle to do this because they feel obliged not to. Deep rooted personality traits of such people cause them to struggle to ‘let things go’.
Let’s look at a simplified example of a built-in, unconscious personality trait that might lead a person to experience workplace and relationship stress: An eldest child in a large family is prematurely delegated a lot responsibility for their siblings. The parents might do this as they are struggling to raise their children for one or more reasons (e.g. illness, drug addiction, financial difficulty, bereavement or relationship issues). Because of the large amount of responsibility they were given growing up, the eldest child may mature with a ‘built-in’ tendency towards anxiety and a deep sense of responsibility for the people and situations around them. They are likely to feel a lot of anxiety because children are not really equipped to share parenting responsibilities. They do so excessively at variable cost to their emotional development; the developing mind can only do so much.
Such a person is then likely to be very diligent in the workplace (for example), and take a lot of responsibility for their work and feel reluctant to trust colleagues enough to delegate their work to them. They are likely to get very emotionally involved in their work and anxious when workload is high and things seem to be getting out of control. In these circumstances they are likely to take on more work and not share the effort for fear it won’t be done properly. They are also likely to see this hard working trait and tendency to overload themselves as a positive personal trait and may not be conscious of the impact it has on their stress levels and personal relationships. Similarly in their own friendships and families outside work, they may be seen as ‘the strong friend’ who everyone ‘goes to’. They may also feel their partner lacks the impetus to manage their children or work with other family members. They may find it very hard to let go of family responsibilities and allow partners, cleaners, child minders, grandparents etc to help.
In this way, the person’s emotional character makes them susceptible to higher levels of stress over more practical and tangible matters. A person who is more able to calmly allow others to contribute in the management of any situation is more likely to feel less anxious, tired, and overwhelmed and therefore generally less stressed when faced with the same circumstances.
Assuming you struggle with managing your stress at a personal level, it is possible to reflect on how you perceive your circumstances and through this reflection, to feel more calm in a stressful situation; in other words, the same circumstances can seem less stressful if you alter your perspective on them through reflection. In the example above of the eldest sibling, it may be possible for them to increase their awareness of how they are interpreting their interactions with people and situations around them. By doing this, they can begin to reflect on and challenge their assumptions about their need to take control of situations and resolve issues they see or believe they foresee.
This process of heightening awareness could begin with the person thinking about sample interactions in the workplace or at home. For example if the child minder said he was tired does it really mean he is subtly complaining about the overworked parent arriving home three minutes late that leads to their feeling guilty about working too late or is it just an honest and present response to their earlier question ‘how are you today?’ Another example might be if a colleague offers honest feedback about a presentation in the making, ‘it’s a bit unclear on the second slide but ok otherwise’. Does this mean the colleague has offered honest feedback if a little unclear on what could be changed to improve the clarity of the slide or does it mean everyone in the department doubts the presenter’s competence and is conspiring to get them fired? If the more negative thoughts are present in both examples, it could be the case that there is an underlying anxiety manifesting in split second gut assumptions that they are constantly failing or doing the wrong thing or not doing (well) enough.
The elder sibling mentioned above would be likely to be very sensitive to criticism in this way and would probably often interpret feedback in a more negative way, raising their levels of doubt, fear, anxiety and overall stress. They are also likely to interpret ambiguity as negative feedback (such as in the case of the child minder saying they are tired). Looking for repeating patterns of thoughts in the above mentioned way can help identify what’s going on emotionally for the person and they can begin to see how their often incorrect assumptions about what other people mean are contributing to their elevated levels of stress through fear and anxiety.
Using reflection to find anomalies between internal emotional experiences and external realities, a person can begin to apply these reflections to future interactions. This allows them to rewrite or ‘reframe’ their memories of earlier interactions based on their new understanding of how their interpretation of things may be a stressor all by itself. In time, practicing this kind of reflection helps reduce a person’s ‘built in’ stressing traits, transforming them into a more present, calm and less stressed individual.
Finally, the above example of an eldest sibling was used to illustrate the difficulties of identifying and ways of alleviating stress, it’s worth mentioning here that it is a simplified if plausible example. Such traits as anxiety and the tendency to take on too much are not the legacy of eldest siblings alone. They can occur in varying degrees in many people for many different developmental reasons and the process of reflection described above can still be used as suggested. Furthermore if a person has some of these traits, regardless of their developmental origin, the traits may not be strong enough to negatively impact the person’s ability to manage their stress levels. We all share most human traits and they only become a problem if they prevent us from functioning in our families, jobs and society.