I have come to believe that many approaches to managing psychological stress are incomplete. If you are at least moderately stressed, and chronically so, join the club. It’s a big club, so come early to our support meetings or you’ll be left standing – or watching the proceedings from a monitor in another room.
One half of managing stress – the half I won’t discuss today – is managing the stress that arises as a response to certain situations (and beliefs) that one encounters throughout one’s day. Perhaps you’ve found that getting up early and jogging, working out, or taking a walk before work helps you feel more energized and capable of facing the day’s challenges. Perhaps you’ve found that having a bedtime routine of relaxing, reading, herbal tea, or a long shower helps you wind down and sleep better. Or perhaps you’ve added meditation and/or mindfulness practices to your life and gained a greater sense of presence, emotional equanimity, and an appropriate distancing from your ruminative or worry thoughts.
All of the above – and more – I highly recommend. I contend, however, that these approaches are only half of the equation of managing stress and always will remain so. What’s the other half? Let’s start by reviewing what stress is.
Here’s a simple and common definition from an online dictionary, “Stress is a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” I would quibble with this definition’s focus on “mental or emotional strain” because the stress response affects the entire organism. It includes emotional, motivational, cognitive, and behavioral components as well as physiologic ones, effects such as altered levels of stress hormones, inflammatory responses, immunologic function, and so forth.
Despite my quibbles with the above definition, the main thrust of the definition is that stress has two parts to it: “adverse or demanding circumstances” and “a state of mental or emotional strain.” Notice that the first relates to the environment, a person’s lived world, and the second relates to a person’s organismic responses. Thus, stress may best be thought of as resulting from a lack of a goodness-of-fit between individual and environmental circumstances. What a person finds adverse and demanding is subjective to large degree. Hearing gunshots near one’s house or having one’s house surrounded by arsonists can be considered a universally adverse circumstance. The fact is, however, that most circumstances we face are more nuanced: what is adverse and demanding to me may be less so to you or even may be exhilarating to you.
For example, let’s say you happen to work for a large corporation doing your routine tasks while sitting in your little office day after day until, one day, your boss tells you that you must fly to Beijing tomorrow because of an emergent situation in the office there. How will you respond? You may respond with trepidation as you imagine feeling exhausted by the long flight, having to face the language barrier, making some sort of cultural faux pas after landing, reacting poorly to new foods, or facing the risk of not being competent to address that office’s business concerns. Or perhaps you may respond by feeling exhilarated at being freed, at least for a while, from the confines of your small office and daily routine and of having an opportunity to shine to your bosses by fixing an important company problem.
What makes the difference in one person’s response to a potentially stressful situation as compared to another person’s? The general answer is that it lies in the goodness-of-fit between situation and the person as they both are. One factor, among others, is that goodness-of-fit relates to a person’s trust in their ability to manage their stress response, if one were to occur, through some of the calming approaches I presented above. Another factor relates to level of trust in one’s skill navigating through such situations. So, skill training and exposure are certainly possible points of intervention to decrease stress response. And still another factor relates to a person’s personality. Each person has a unique way of moving through the world with a unique set of capacities, levels of comfort versus distress when facing particular situations, and a unique set of goals, motivations, fears, and values.
It is this last factor that touches on the point of today’s post: one way to decrease a person’s level of stress is to change their world to better fit that person’s uniqueness.
I believe that developing the mindset that we are the architect of our personal world is an underappreciated intervention to minimizing stress and, equally importantly, maximizing life success and happiness. We don’t only have to bend to the will of the world. We can also bend the world to our will, to change the world to better fit what feels good to each of us and allows us to shine in that world.
We are not magicians, however, and we don’t have fairy godmothers. You can’t walk into your clinical director’s office to tell him or her that you are making drastic changes to your clinic schedule or to office routines. I am a realist; most changes take time to implement, and they involve other people, and a way must be found to bring these others onboard with the changes you want to see happen. And, of course, both you and the people around you may be part of a larger institutional structure, one that places its own demands on you and others and is often impervious to calls for change. So, changing the world around you is mostly a long-term play and, as such, is best undertaken as a life-long comportment towards the world, one characterized by an attitude of non-automatic acceptance of what is, and a willingness to change what is, to improve goodness-of-fit for oneself and for others. I am asking you to begin thinking of how to live in such a way that you account for the goodness-of-fit between yourself and your world. This entails both accommodating to the world and designing the surrounding world to better suit you.
Let me make one last point that may be helpful. When I think of the concept of personality, I think about a set of static aspects of a person, those reflecting their temperament and character. The first personality trait that springs to mind is the introversion/extroversion spectrum. Another trait that comes to mind is the behavioral inhibition/novelty-seeking spectrum. These are useful concepts but limited. What really allows me to better understand personality is to take a dynamic view of it, to see personality as a person’s unique way of navigating through and engaging the world, and one that evolves over time. Each day we spring forth from our beds and move through the day, encountering a series of situations. We find that some situations are easy, empowering, successful, and energizing. Others are just the opposite. The key here is that each of us has a different set of empowering and energizing situations and of stress-inducing and demoralizing ones. And we are in a position, one limited by various constraints of course, to choose the circumstances of our lives, to effect change in the world, to balance the situations we face that lead to comfort and sense of competence versus those that lead to stress and a sense of incompetence. The goal isn’t to always live within one’s comfort zone. Then there would be no growth, no confrontation with one’s limits and the mastery that comes with surpassing those limits.
Thus, the question for each person is how does one move within, choose, and/or design a world that is a better fit, a fit that allows a person to thrive, to live with greater joy, and to be of greater value to the world, and that, at the same time, is a world that includes enough friction and challenge to allow increasing mastery and growth?
“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” ― David Mamet, Boston Marriage
“I was a little excited but mostly blorft. “Blorft” is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.” ― Tina Fey, Bossypants
“If the problem can be solved, why worry? If the problem cannot be solved, worrying will do you no good.” ― Shantideva
“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune
“How well I know with what burning intensity you live. You have experienced many lives already, including several you have shared with me- full rich lives from birth to death, and you just have to have these rest periods in between.” ― Anais Nin