The Stress Myth: Why Stressors aren't what's stressing you

I did a little experiment today, and googled “top 5 stressors”. I found a multitude of lists of reasons people give for feeling stressed, either at work or at home (as if we’re two different people depending on where we are). There were some similarities but none were exactly the same.

One very reputable organisation, who do a great job in raising awareness of mental health issues and helping people to ‘deal with’ stress, gives examples of things on their website that might be stressful, and then goes on to say that, in fact, there may be no obvious cause of a person’s stress.

To me, these words should have flashing lights all around them.

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Perhaps there’s no obvious cause because we’re looking in the wrong place for causes. Maybe the things we think stress us, are not the causes of our stress at all.

When I think of ‘managing stress,’ the image comes to mind of the arcade game I know as ‘Whack-a-mole”. You never know where the mole is going to pop up next, but you have to be ready to whack it back to where it came from.

Attempting to manage all the factors and circumstances of your life to minimise stress seems to me to be the same game - you just get one thing under control and something else comes up that you then have to manage in some way in order to not feel stressed. Or else three of the little suckers come up at once and you’ve got no chance of getting them all.

And sometimes no matter how many times you hit the mole, it just sits there staring at you, and you have to accept it’s not going anywhere.

If it were true that the ‘moles’ in our lives - circumstances and other people that we think are stressing us - really caused us to feel stress, we would either have stress nailed, or the situation would be completely hopeless.

Nailed - because if the stress were inherent in the circumstance, everyone would react the same, and stress would be predictable and quantifiable. “Oh, Mr Smith, I see you’re moving house. You can expect a slightly elevated heart rate and sweaty palms for a period of three weeks or until the last box is unpacked.”

Hopeless - because there are things we can never control or avoid, so we would all be doomed to a certain level of stress if those things happened - it’s the absolute definition of being a victim of circumstance.

But that’s not how it works, is it?

One person’s stressor is another’s ‘meh’ or cause for celebration. One navigates apparent adversity with grace and dignity, while another feels so much stress they end up with debilitating mental or physical health problems.

So here’s the good news:

The stress isn’t coming from the thing we’re blaming for it, therefore we are not, and can never be, victims of circumstance.

So if it’s not my job, my family, my finances, my past or moving house, what is it then?

First, a little bit about how our human psychological system works.

Human beings are wired for experience. The energy of life is running through us - it animates the shell we inhabit and gives us our experience of our life through the form of thoughts. This Thought energy is constantly on the move, giving each of us a unique experience of our universe, from moment to moment.

Thought is the vehicle that gives us the full range of human experience - love, fear, joy, anger, stress, peace - all without us having to ‘do’ anything. Our thinking ebbs and flows as part of the natural flow of life.

What trips us up is misunderstanding where the physical sensations of stress are coming from. And in fact stress is predictable; the predictor is where you think your feelings are coming from in any given moment.

When we’re looking to something other than Thought as the cause of our stressful experience, we think that the ‘thing’ has to change for us to feel less stressed.

If that person would act differently, I would feel different (and by implication I can’t if they don’t)

If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t feel like this (and by implication I am doomed to feel like this for ever, because it did happen)

If that situation would change, I would feel less stressed (and by implication I can’t feel less stress if it doesn’t change)

If things don’t or won’t change, our mismatched expectations of how life should be and how it actually is, feed our stressful thinking, creating more stressful feelings.

Thought creates our feelings, 100% of the time.

This is the constant and reliable fact of how we experience any feeling, including feelings we label as stressful. We don’t have to factor in any variables to this - it’s just how the system works.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take care of practicalities in your life, or that you don’t have too much work for one person to competently deal with in the amount of time you’ve got. I’m simply describing how the system actually works: in any situation or circumstance, what you’re feeling is your thinking, 100% of the time, no exceptions.

So how’s that helpful?

In the same way it’s helpful to know how gravity works if you want to get water up a hill, and you’ve been using a rake until now, it’s helpful to understand how the human psychological operating system works if you want to waste less time and energy doing stuff that doesn’t make sense with the aim of feeling differently (i.e.: trying to manage stressors that aren’t actually causing your stress).

Thought and its accompanying feelings are the weather on the sky of your being. You don’t need to worry about it - it rains, the sun comes out, it rains again, and the sun comes out again. That’s the system at work, and we don’t (any more) feel the need to blame the weather on an angry god, or perform rituals to make it rain next Tuesday.

We know and accept that we’re not in charge of the weather - it will just do what it does - but we do know that the sky is always there, whatever the weather.

We understand that the nature of nature is to flow, to keep moving; we just forget sometimes that we are nature and we are part of that flow of energy. We forget that we’re the sky.

Thought will ebb and flow; it’s only when we forget that’s just how it works, that our scary thoughts look real to us and we feel stuck. The moment we see our stressful feelings as part of Thought’s natural creative ebb and flow, they lose their scariness and their stickiness, and we can just get on with the job of living our lives, with all their ups and downs, sunshine and rain, moles and molehills.

You can contact me to discuss anything in the article - I'd love to hear from you.

I'd like to thank Chantal Burns for the sky analogy in her wonderful book Instant Motivation - the surprising truth behind what really drives top performance.