I know, I know – we’ve talked about this already, right? Let’s dig deeper!
At first, this might seem straightforward – but it’s not that simple. That’s because stress actually comes from three types of sources: (1) events and situations (including those that involve other people), (2) thoughts (your ideas, perceptions, and beliefs), and (3) negative emotions (such as anxiety, anger, and depression). And to complicate things further, these sources of stress are linked together. So, to manage stress effectively, you’ll need to understand your own situational triggers, stress-provoking thinking patterns, and stress-inducing emotional states.
Situations, Thoughts, and Feelings: How are they related?
You’ve read in earlier posts that everyone experiences stressful situations uniquely. It’s definitely an individual reaction. Even though anyone would be stressed out by an unexpected job loss, or lose sleep at night worrying about a child whose grades have plummeted, right? Of course these situations would stress an individual. Everyone experiences most situations and events differently. As a matter of fact, two people can be in the same negative circumstance, but their individual stress levels may be completely different.
Two best friends, are getting ready to go on vacation together. They’re at the airport waiting for their flight, but it’s snowing heavily and they’ve just learned that all flights to their destination have been canceled for the day. Friend # One takes this very hard. She is thinking, “This is awful. We’ll never get there. Our vacation is ruined. I always get all the bad luck. It’s so unfair.” Friend # 2 looks at the situation differently. To her, it’s more of a nuisance than a catastrophe. She says to herself, “I wish this wasn’t happening, but you can’t control the weather. I guess we’ll have to make the best of it – there really isn’t anything else we can do at this point. This will be an experience we’ll never forget.”
I’m sure you can guess which friend was much more stressed out about the canceled flight. Friend # 1 grew more and more irritable, losing her cool and even snapping at the ticket agent who was trying to help them get booked on a flight the next day. She felt helpless and sick to her stomach, and developed a headache. Friend # 2, on the other hand, while disappointed and frustrated, remained composed and cooperative. She didn’t have the strong negative feelings or physical symptoms that her friend was having. She coped much better with the stressful situation. How can two friends in the same situation have such different stress levels?
The answer has to do with how we think about the situation. Friend # 1 viewed the canceled flight as a total catastrophe. She blew it out of proportion (“The vacation is ruined”) and took it personally (“I always get all the bad luck”). This type of thinking led to her feeling helpless, depressed, angry, and anxious. And these intense negative emotions made her lose her cool and become uncooperative. Friend # 2, on the other hand, was thinking more rationally. She didn’t like the situation, but she also realized that there wasn’t much she could do about it, so she’d have to cope the best she could. This kind of thinking helped her keep her stress levels in check.
The moral of the above example is that while events and situations influence your stress level to some degree, how you think about these events has even more to do with how stressed out you become. That’s because your thinking patterns intensify your emotional response to the stressor. And intense feelings of anger, helplessness, anxiety, and depression impair your ability to cope with the stressor, making the situation even worse and creating a vicious cycle.