Stress is often referred to as a negative feeling. In the workplace we tend to blame our stress on jobs, coworkers, paperwork, regulations, conflicting roles we have to assume, and poor pay. In our personal lives we blame our families, finances, overwhelming responsibilities and health issues. We invest a lot of time and money escaping stress – going on vacations, making ‘feel good’ purchases, and avoiding uncomfortable situations. These techniques can help temporarily, but only to the extent that a Band-Aid stops the bleeding from a large gash on the leg. Other stress avoiders, such as drugs and alcohol, are overtly unhealthy ways of coping with stress, and eventually add additional problems and stress.
It is self defeating if we fail to take ownership of our own problems. To externalize responsibility for our stress, assume that others are responsible for our feelings, means that we are giving away the power and control for being able to correct the problems. So it is actually our perception of stress that makes stress a problem for us.
For example, let’s look at Gwen and Rose. Both are high school teachers, and due to recent budget cuts, both receive complaints from parents regarding the over-sized classrooms and shortage of textbooks. Some parents have reacted by yelling at the teachers, demanding to see the principal, and threatening to withdraw their children from the school. Gwen now wakes up in the morning with a feeling of dread that she has to go to work. She experiences dull headaches, feels anxious and angry. Colleagues have noticed that she has lost her sense of humor. The principal has received feedback from parents that Gwen has even lashed out in anger at her students. Unfortunately, Gwen is now on the road to professional burnout.
Meanwhile, Rose is experiencing the identical situation quite differently. She realizes that the tough economy is going to affect her teaching career for many years to come and is deriving a sense of challenge from this unwelcome stress. She has committed herself to seeking a solution that will be acceptable to both her and her students. Rose has already put into place innovative procedures and scheduling so that the students’ education will not be compromised.
The difference between Gwen and Rose is that Gwen realizes that by assuming responsibility for the problem, she also has the ability to correct the problem. Rose realizes the secret about stress; that stress is an inside job. In other words, you cannot do much about events that affect you. However, you can control how you think about them. Stress can be reduced by relabeling events from a positive viewpoint, accepting that which cannot be changed, looking for opportunities to express one’s feelings, burying old myths that create unrealistically high standards, developing healthy coping styles, and communicating in an assertive manner. Our goal should not be a stress-free life. Rather, the goal should be to harness the energy that comes from a stressful situation.
Breaking into our minds and going through the beliefs we have about circumstances in life is important in learning how to manage stress successfully. Since our behavior follows our thoughts, we need to control how we perceive situations. Going back to my example of Gwen and Rose, it would serve Gwen well to re-evaluate why she feels the need to make each student’s parent happy. If she can learn to accept that she can try to work with a disgruntled parent, but that it is unrealistic to expect that she can make all parents happy, then she will not own the burden of feeling responsible for other people’s anger.
People who handle stress well have a sense of control over their environment. Learning one can’t be everything to everybody is a positive step in taking control of stress. Moving forward to find solutions to stressful situations, such as Rose has already begun, will also help in adjusting to a stressful situation. And finally, finding a way to derive satisfaction and enjoyment from the stressful challenge will empower you, and put you back in control.