Written by: Kevin Cann
I have written quite extensively about stress on this site in the past. I emphasized over and over just how important managing our stress is to our overall health. Stress in the literature has been linked to almost every disease imaginable as well as weight gain.
I wrote about how stress in our lives is unavoidable. We have to sit in traffic on a day to day basis, worry about money, have family and relationship issues, and so on. I often explained the importance of adding in at least 40 minutes a day of some form of stress management such as meditation.
I was so sure of myself writing those articles, but today I am telling you that I may have been wrong. I wasn’t wrong in stating that traffic, money problems, relationship issues, and so on are stressors. They most definitely are. However, they may not be as harmful to our health as we think (key phrase “as we think”).
I just finished reading Andrew Bernstein’s The Myth of Stress and it really made me rethink my approach to stress management. The author is the founder of a stress management program known as ActivInsight. This program is not based around meditation, deep breathing, or chanting weird songs. Instead it is based around changing our perception of stress.
Bernstein discusses how the stress response has been with us since before we were human. This was developed to give us a fighting chance from predators. He goes on to discuss how we do not have the same stressors today as then, but the response is still a part of us.
Where Bernstein differs is he claims that stress is a byproduct of our internal perceptions on external factors. An example he uses in the book is the saber toothed tiger is not the stressor, but our perception that the tiger will maul us if we do not run away is. To back up his point he explains that if we do not know the tiger is there we do not have the same panic. Logically this makes a lot of sense to me.
He also makes a great point about sitting in traffic. Some people are all fired up sitting there, some are moderately agitated, and some are completely calm. It is not traffic that is the stressor, but how we perceive the traffic that is.
With this belief system, Bernstein derived a system to help us change our perception of stress. Having been an English major definitely helped him out in this aspect of his program. He has the person write down a simple statement in regards to how they feel about a particular stressor. For example, “there shouldn’t be any traffic.”
Bernstein then has clients use negation and write it down. For example, instead of saying “there shouldn’t be traffic” they would say “there should be traffic at this time.” He adds in the “at this time” so that people stay in the present. He then has his clients prove the negation. The idea in this is it changes our perception about the traffic.
Bernstein is not just saying that if we swap around words we are all of a sudden cured from stressors. Like anything this takes time to work. However, he has his clients rate the stressor at the beginning and after proving the negation. The goal is to get it down a couple of points. If traffic puts us at a 10 for a stress level and we run through the process and are now a 7, it helped. He claims the more you practice it the better it gets as well.
There is quite a bit of literature in the journals that backup what Bernstein mentions in his book. Studies have shown that perceived stress actually correlates with higher waking cortisol levels (1). This is really important work. If the negative components of stress are really caused by perception it is just a matter of changing that perception to mitigate the negative effects.
For a long period of time I truly believed the only answer was blocking out a time period to meditate. Meditating is still beneficial, but it does not remove the stressor. If we learn to perceive a stressor such as traffic as no longer being a stressor, this is a really powerful weapon.
I am going to mess around with the worksheets from the book and see how it works for me. If this goes well I will have clients use it and see how well that it works. In the meantime I highly recommend that you pick up Andrew Bernstein’s The Myth of Stress. It was a fascinating read and may end up being a game changer for me when all is said and done.