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“People, by and large, are astonishingly attracted to the catastrophic interpretation of things” [Seligman]

Upon opening the Stress Management Sourcebook by J. Barton Cunningham, I find the statement: “No previous generation of people in history has experienced the variety and intensity of pressures, conflicts, and demands as ours has”, and I understand immediately why stress management is important. I have no real way of knowing what pressures, conflicts and demands existed in the stone age, the Dark Ages or the Inquisition, but my guess is that the people who lived then could have made the same statement, and at least from my perspective, had a lot more basis in fact. I would hate to face wild animals on a daily basis, and an Inquisitor on even one. I think I would find those events quite stressful. On the other hand, if I were a well-adjusted cave man, perhaps I would enjoy the challenge of the hunt and find the presence of wild animals exhilarating.

Our experience of the world is experience of an interpretation. Cunningham has interpreted the world of today as having excessive pressures, conflicts and demands. But this is merely his interpretation, and while many may agree with it, it remains an interpretation. Contrast the interpretation of this experience.

Without Fear

During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger. “You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

The interpretation of the Zen Master was that death was not a problem. The actions outside of the mind are only stressful if the mind interprets them as such.

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are”–Anais Nin

It seems that Cunningham seeks to provide help to others in dealing with stress without understanding this basic concept. In writing about his own work environment, he perceives himself and others as victims of colleagues who are often described as fractious, caustic, divisive and aggressive. He states that his most consistent finding is that a “stress-free lifestyle and job flows from a healthy mind and stress management style, just as much as it does from caring managers and supervisors”.

We would not suggest that this book can not be helpful for its premise is not coherent. I wonder how that statement would interpreted? We live, as Dr. Cunningham says, in an age of anxiety. At the time of Freud, we lived in an age of hysteria. In both eras, we have gone out of control mentally. We have allowed ourselves to view the world and our role in it as a catastrophic event, despite our relative luxury of lifestyle. If one is to address stress management, one needs to look at taking control of their own thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. We must begin to reinterpret the world in more benign terms. Even to talk about stress may require an enhancement of our very ambiguous language, since presently the word stand for both the cause and the effect. Perhaps the cause could be called pressure. Pressure would identify the events and experiences that can be difficult to deal with or, cause you to change or adjust in order to deal with it. Pressure comes from three basic sources:

  • The environment bombards with demands you to adjust. You must endure weather, noise, traffic and pollution.
  • You must also cope with social or interpersonal factors, such as deadlines, financial problems, job interviews, presentations, disagreements, demands for your time and attention, and loss of a loved one.
  • A third source is physiological. The rapid growth of adolescence, menopause in women, illness, aging, injuries, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and sleep disturbances can all tax the body.

Pressure, however, cannot become turned around to become stress unless or until we develop representations of them. How you interpret and label your experiences and what you predict for the future can either serve to relax or stress you. Stress comes from the negative thoughts that you use to interpret and translate complex changes in the environment, interpersonal relations and the body. These thoughts determine when you will turn on the ‘emergency response’. In fact, your thoughts can trigger physiological reaction to environmental and social threats and changes, which can also result in symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, stomach upset and anxiety. These, in turn, can of course, reinforce the negative thoughts that cause stress.

How we do that has to do with changing the way we think, a process of cognitive behavior management. There are a variety of techniques to help people think differently. Serenity in calm times is not a skill; serenity in turbulent times is.

May you live in interesting times.