What are the causes of stress in our lives? Many famous thinkers would argue that we cause our own stress—all of it! That’s not to say that we cause the decline of our industries and the resulting downsizing in our companies, or the ills of friends and loved ones, or the fact that the school bus arrived 10 minutes early today. We are the not the cause of all the challenges in our lives, but we are responsible for the way we react to them.
To put it simply, our lack of preparation for life’s challenges leads to an inability to cope with those situations. Boom—stress!
Let’s look at some practical examples:
The stress of getting out of the house in the morning
My wife and I both work and often leave the house at the same time in the morning. This tends to be one of the most challenging parts of our day, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. We wake up later than we should—milking the morning of every last opportunity for sleep—grab a quick bite to eat, change the baby’s diaper, try to give him a little attention, shower, gather our things, gather the baby’s things, and rush out the door 5 minutes later than we should have only to discover we have to stop for gas or we won’t make it to work at all. We get gas, drop the baby off at the sitter, then speed down the highway in a dangerous display causing even more stress for ourselves as we get angry and curse at the slow drivers (idiots-Thank you George Carlin) who must have left their homes on time.
We blame our jobs for having unreasonable hours. We blame the baby because, “parenting is hard, man!” We blame each other for not getting gas the night before. But unless the electricity went out in the middle of the night and the alarm didn’t go off, the stress is entirely our fault—and even if that did in fact happen, we are still in control of our reaction to the situation. Stress is a result of our lack of preparation in both situations—electrical failure or not.
The Stress of Money (or lack thereof)
The closing clank of the mailbox sounds as you sit at home blissfully unaware of the personal financial crisis your friendly postman just delivered. Excitedly, you rush to retrieve the mail expecting to find your latest internet purchases, but instead find…bills!
You knew they were coming but, in a useless act of defiance, you decided not to look at your bank account or check your credit card balance until now. The bills are here and you realize you may have bought a few too many chotchkies online or went out to eat way too much this month. Your paycheck this Friday is essentially already spent—the garage door opener just stopped working, your brother wants you to chip in for mom and dad’s anniversary gift, and you really wanted to buy a pair of those weird toe-shoes—you’re stressed.
Let’s ignore the obvious need for a household budget in this scenario and focus on the reaction to this situation. You have two choices—you could react or you could reflect and respond.
React to stress or Reflect and Respond
To react, for most people, means to give in to whatever negative emotion is most prominent when stress rears its ugly head—depression, anger, etc. While these emotions are perfectly normal, they’re simply not helpful in most of our daily challenges—in fact they hurt more than they help.
The idea is to take an extra moment to first reflect before we respond to the stress. This takes the focus away from our natural (or perhaps learned) inclination to indulge in our negative emotions as a response. This way we are more capable to think clearly about the problem, it’s cause, possible solutions, and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
This obviously takes a lot of conscious effort and self-awareness. It’s hard, but in the end, it’s just another habit that, when we take consistent action, we can develop. Each time we take the action—building the habit— it requires less and less effort.
Death of a Loved One
What about things that are completely out of our control? It’s one thing to take steps to avoid unnecessary stress in our lives, but what about the death and illness of loved ones? We are human after all, so these things are truly a part of life. Surprisingly, though it may seem quite grim, preparation may be the most effective way to mitigate stress in these situations too.
A technique called Negative Visualization was practiced by Stoic Philosophers such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Here’s how it works:
Say for instance, a loved one is terminally ill with cancer. When we know they may die soon, we are, in a way, forced into this practice. Consider a time you may have heard someone speak with surprising emotional stability about a parent or grandparent’s death. We may find out that they were sick for a long time before dying, thus they knew that death was in the near future, they had time to prepare for it, and they made good use of the time they had left with them.
They were able to part ways with their loved one without unmanageable grief because they were emotionally prepared to deal with their death. This is how negative visualization works. It softens the blow of losing something to which we are attached.
This is the part that sounds grim—we can use this same approach for all of our loved ones, even the perfectly healthy ones.
Consider the way William Irvine puts it in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:
“To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes [this] advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.”
The Stoics recommend applying this technique to anything to which we feel attached. The specific prescription is to take time regularly to consider losing things, such as your car, your house, your job. Then should these negative situations occur, you are better prepared to deal with them.
Stress can be helpful.
Nobody is perfect. Even the most disciplined people sabotage themselves in one way or another. But what if, instead of getting angry or depressed, we got excited about stress? We can look at stress as a signal indicating an opportunity to make our lives better.
If we enter stress with the expectation that we are going to learn and grow from the situation we are more likely to do so and come out with a positive result. In short, just like the physical stress caused by lifting weights helps our muscles grow, the same is true in our brains when we handle moderate emotional stress with the right mindset.
Internal or External Locus of Control
The way we react to stress ultimately depends on whether we have an internal or external locus of control. People with an internal locus of control operate with a belief that they are responsible for the events and outcomes in their life. Someone with an external locus of control believes that outside forces, such as fate, god, your job, or other people are to blame for everything.
Without an internal locus of control (LOC), it may be more difficult to develop a positive mindset about stress, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that an external locus of control is bad. Some studies have shown that people with an external LOC can also lead happy relaxed lives.
It may be helpful to take a few minutes to reflect about our lives from time to time and whether our mindset is helping or hurting us.
The fact is that LOC, internal or external is something we learned, which means we can change it.
There’s no doubt that we should take steps to avoid unnecessary stress, like laying out work clothes and packing lunch the night before we have to wake up early. But, ultimately, the occurrence of stress is inevitable—it’s the way we respond to it that is in our control.
We can practice negative visualization but even using that technique cannot prepare us for everything. Life is full of surprises! We can react to the stress caused by those surprises—give in to initial negative emotions—or we can develop a positive mindset, embrace an internal locus of control, and learn to think about our situation unclouded by emotion. That doesn’t mean we should be suppressing emotions. That can cause even more problems in the long run. The idea here is to acknowledge our emotions and then make a conscious decision on whether indulging in those emotions would be helpful or harmful. We should consciously choose how we respond to stress. Or, as Charles Swindoll, in his book The Grace Awakening, said:
“We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.”