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To Stress Or Not To Stress?

Today I want to share the third analogy I frequently use in my sessions with clients.

“What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events.” Epictetus

Today I want to share a few examples to illustrate how in most situations the stressors we perceive as overwhelming are not intrinsically present in their source.

Scenario 1:

John is 28 years old, he is in great health and a body builder. He can bench press close to 200 Kg.

Mary is 28 years old, she is in great health and never exercised in her life.

I hand John and Mary the exact same object, which weighs 2 Kg, and I ask them to hold it in their right hand while keeping their arm perfectly straight in front of them.

After 1 minutes Mary complains that the object is feeling heavy, while John can barely register its presence.

So, is the object heavy or not?

Scenario 2:

You are in your car, a luxury one at that, with all its modern comforts, you are heading to a very important meeting and you are already late. Unfortunately the traffic is at a standstill. No car is moving!

Coincidentally, adjacent to yours, there is an identical car, inclusive of all the same modern comforts. Unbeknown to you, the person in that car is also heading to a very important meeting, and they too are already late.

As you look over, you notice that the driver is visibly irate and is furiously pounding the steering wheel, seemingly cursing at the traffic.

You pause and realise that, while somewhat apprehensive about your lateness, you feel remarkably calm. In this peaceful state you decide to call ahead and inform your counterparty of your delay.

You and the other driver are both subjected to the same external phenomena, traffic and being late. What makes the difference in your reactions?

Scenario 3:

Singapore is a hot a humid country, with over 30 degrees C and around 80% humidity daily. I personally love this weather.

Let’s assume for argument sake that you hate this weather.

You and I are enjoying a nice coffee at one of the hipster cafés in town, it’s really good coffee.

It’s time to say goodbye, and we walk together out of the shop. As we exit the building, our senses are concurrently hit by an identical, objectively measurable reality, 30C and 80% humidity.

Without realising the process leading to it, I find myself thinking, “oh, so nice and warm, I was freezing in the café”, while you find yourself thinking, “wow, it’s so hot outside, I can’t wait to get into the MRT and the aircon”.

Once again, we were both subjected to the same exact external reality, and yet we had two wildly different reactions.

So, is the hot and humid weather pleasant of unpleasant?

There are infinite examples of this nature, but I think the point is well made.

Seldom an external object, situation or phenomenon is intrinsically and objectively stressful.

In the beautiful book, ‘Man’s search for meaning’ by Viktor Frankl, we witness the wildly different experiences of men in concentration camps, and learn what a powerful role the mind plays in creating such experiences.

The human experience of life and reality is very subjective and we all are constantly subjected to a continuous stream of stimuli, both internal and external. Depending on our state of mind and body, we are likely to perceive some of these stimuli as overwhelming.

Going back to our three scenarios, the 2 Kg is not intrinsically heavy or light, it’s just 2 Kg, which is a measurable fact - its heaviness or lightness is a subjective judgment we place on it. John’s build is such that to him the weight is negligible; not so for Mary, who therefore experiences the object as overwhelming to her capacity to sustain its pressure.

The driver next to you in traffic just received some terrible news from the family and is experiencing some internal, emotional pressure that brought his system to the brink. You on the other hand are going about an average day. For the other driver the traffic was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

My intrinsic preference for hot climate makes it so that I experience the hot and humid Singapore weather as pleasant, but the weather itself is neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

There is no permanent fix for this. Life is full of surprises, and you can be sure that when you least expect it, it will throw challenges at you. But there is a lot you can do to mitigate their impact when they hit.

1. Live as healthy a lifestyle as you can (mens sana in corpore sano)

2. Cultivate awareness

3. Build a resilient support network

Live as healthy a lifestyle as you can

Over the last decade we have gained a much deeper understanding of the mind-body connection. Looking after our physical body is a sure way to create the best conditions for a healthy, strong and resilient mind.

Cultivate awareness

Barring those situations where there are genuine dangers, our minds tend to over-react to relatively innocuous stimuli. This is because we are overwhelmed by so many competing demands already (family, finances, social media, bosses, businesses, deadlines, health, etc).

Cultivating awareness equips us with the tools to notice reality closer to what it really is, therefore minimising the risk we over-react to it.

Build a resilient support network

Despite all that, there will be challenges in your life that you just can’t deal with alone. This is where the ever-powerful support networks comes handy.

Surround yourself with people you love and love you back, who are there for you when needed.

The power of the support group in recovery and healing is well documented and should be an integral part of everyone’s life.


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