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How to Manage Stress: Question Our Thinking

I hear lots of people talking about how stressed they are. Often, this is accompanied by some version of “I have a really stressful job” or “My home life is really stressful” or “I’m stressed because of all my responsibilities.” If you can identify with this way of thinking, I have some bad news for you: You’re probably thinking about stress wrong, and that’s making it much harder for you to deal with the stress.1

Everything I’ll talk about from here depends on the following generally accepted definition of stress:

Stress: The feeling resulting from the belief that I don’t have enough resources (time, money, assistance, etc.) or ability (skill, talent, knowledge, etc.) to be successful in some situation.

As an example, during the first year of my PhD program, I was stressed about keeping up with the reading . There was So. Much. Reading. I (of course) had multiple classes at once, and all of them were assigning multiple articles (or books!) to read every week. And, of course, it seemed like none of the professors were talking to the others, and so the reading assignments just kept flooding in. I had no idea how I was going to keep up with it all—in other words, I didn’t believe I had the time necessary to do it all. So, I felt stressed.

There are several important things to notice about this definition.
First and most important, the feeling results from our belief, not from the situation itself. Stress is not an environmental phenomenon; it is always and forever a mental phenomenon.

Now, look: of course some environments ask us to do more things, or harder things, or more things at once. It’s absolutely understandable to feel stressed in those environments. But, the root causes of the stress are in our thinking, not in the environment.

And, I want to emphasize that this is not a “blame the victim” perspective. I’m not saying that your stress is all your fault because you’re thinking about it wrong. Rather, this is an opportunity. Because the root causes of stress are in our thinking, we can almost always reduce our stress by changing our thinking. To start with, the definition leads to a couple of questions that we can ask ourselves:

  • What is the resource or ability that I think I’m lacking?
  • What do I believe will be the negative consequences of not having enough of that?

Sometimes, just answering these questions can address the stress. Maybe the missing resource is something that we can easily get more of. Maybe looking at the answers makes it clear that we really do have enough of that resource, and we’ll be fine. Maybe imagining the negative consequences makes it clear that it doesn’t really matter. Maybe imagining the negative consequences makes it clear that they really aren’t very likely to happen.

However, sometimes answering those questions just leaves us more aware of the problem. In my case with the reading for my PhD program, I believed I was lacking time. The negative consequences that I imagined were that because I couldn’t do all the reading, I would not do as well as I wanted to, or maybe fail classes, or maybe even fail out of the program entirely.

And, in fact, I really did not have time to do all the reading, and the negative consequences would have mattered and did not seem outrageously unlikely. Getting clear on my thinking, in and of itself, didn’t help to resolve the stress.

Going back to the definition for a second: it’s important to recognize that our belief about not having enough resources might or might not be accurate. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that just because we think it, it must therefore be true, but we don’t have to believe everything we think. And, it should be obvious that the strategies for managing and preventing stress are different depending on whether or not that belief is accurate.

Next week, I’ll talk about some strategies for managing stress in the case where just looking at our stress through the lens of the definition isn’t sufficient to help manage it.


  1. Note, by the way, that I’m only talking about psychological stress. Biological stress due to illness, injury, sleep deprivation, malnutrition, etc. is a real thing with real consequences, and beyond the scope of this discussion.

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