You should feel great all day. If you don’t, then, unless you’ve been exposed to some toxins, it’s probably because you’re eating poorly or you’re stressed. Let’s look at new breakthroughs in our understanding of the stress response.
Where does stress come from?
In short, stress comes from all the things in your life that aren’t going quite as smoothly as you would like: deadlines, lack of time and money, relationships, world affairs etc. Some of these things you can change but some resist your best efforts, and so you experience stress. We learn at a young age that life is inherently stressful.
New insights into the nature of stress indicate that this is a misunderstanding. This compelling theory states that there is nothing external to us that is inherently stressful, even though it certainly seems so.
- You do not have a stressful job (no matter what your job may be)
- You are under no pressure at school, at work, or at home
- Whoever drives you crazy is not a stressor
To be clear, stress as it manifests in the body is very real and can be devastating to health. But the real issue is where stress comes from and what you can do about it. Understanding its origin is essential to successfully addressing it.
What is stress exactly?
Dictionary definition: A mentally or emotionally disruptive or upsetting condition occurring in response to adverse external influences and capable of affecting physical health, usually characterized by increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, muscular tension, irritability, and depression.
This is accurate with the exception of the highlighted phrase “occurring in response to adverse external influences”. Although this seems obviously true, it is not.
Evolutionarily, how would the stress response to “adverse external influences” have been helpful?
The traditionally accepted answer to this question goes like this…
Long ago our caveman ancestors went foraging only to come across a sabre-toothed tiger. Our ancestors immediately experienced a surge of adrenaline, giving them the extra energy to fight or run away – the fight-or-flight response.
Those who had a strong fight-or-flight response were more likely to survive these encounters and would pass this response on to their offspring resulting in, over millions of years, a strengthening of this hormonal surge which became hard wired within us as an automatic response to adverse external influences. And then something unusual happened….
In just a few thousand years – a blink of an eye from an evolutionary perspective – life changed radically. Civilizations were born. Cities emerged. And now, instead of facing the occasional sabre-toothed tiger and the rare but helpful surge of hormones that accompanied it, we find ourselves surrounded by challenges on a daily basis. As a result, our fight-or-flight response is going haywire. The number of “adverse external influences” has multiplied exponentially, so that some of us are living in a near state of constant stress. We’ve become victims of our own biology.
This story has been repeated so many times that as a society, and as individuals, we’ve thought it an unchallengeable truth. But where does the origin of this idea lay?
It comes mostly from one man – a man who unintentionally got us all thinking about stress in exactly the wrong way.
Dr Hans Selye (the “father of stress”)
Selye was a young endocrinologist who thought he’d made a major discovery in the early part of his career.
Long story short, after a series of mistaken assumptions relating to the body’s hormonal response to a specific stimulus, he settled upon an idea that was to formulate much of the Western world’s assumptions regarding stress: He thought he had discovered a general hormonal response triggered by any big challenge.
Selye tested this theory on rats, and upon reflection on what he had seen came up with a novel theory he called ‘The General Adaptation Syndrome, and then, more simply, the Stress Syndrome.
Selye had, for the first time, successfully placed ‘stress’ in a medical context.
From 1940 and the onset of world war, the medical and public interest in stress and its management was peaking, placing Selye with his discovery of the Stress Syndrome at the head of the field.
Over the next four decades, Selye:
- wrote more than thirty books on the subject of stress
- published approximately 17,000 papers addressing stress and psychiatry, stress and aging, stress and cancer, stress and disease
- created the world’s largest stress library intending that all stress research globally be coordinated through his Canadian office
- lectured constantly and became very famous as the founder of the stress concept
- published a code of human behaviour that he felt people and nations should adopt based on his stress research.
Selye believed that he had discovered one of nature’s great physical laws.
The heart of his theory was the concept of nonspecificity: the nonspecific response of the body to any demand placed upon it.
Selye argued there is a nonspecific response: an internal reaction that kicks in whenever a creature is facing a taxing demand, irrespective of what that was. This taxing demand was indicative of poor adaptation. That, according to Selye, was stress.
Therefore, he concluded, stress is inevitable because it’s merely a physical response to a taxing demand. And because life is replete with the challenge of adapting to taxing demands, the best we can do is accept it and try to cope using techniques such as relaxation.
In the post war period of the 1950s and ‘60s, Selye’s theory became widely accepted as true, and it gave birth to the modern “stress management” movement based on relaxation and similar techniques.
Curiously, the possibility that the origin of stress lay not in the external world but in the conscious mind was not considered.
Enter Dr. John Wayne Mason
Physiological Model (Dr Hans Selye) Vs. Psychological Model (Dr John Wayne Mason)
Based on the reactions of his rats to a wide variety of different conditions, Selye proposed that stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, but in the mid-1970s another research scientist, Dr. John W. Mason of the Walter Reed Medical Institute, suggested that Selye had made a crucial mistake by not controlling for physiological reactions. Had he done so, he would have observed little or no stress response.
In other words, Mason showed that Selye’s rats weren’t stressed out because they were reacting “non-specifically” to heat, cold, noise, vibration, starvation, noise, and countless other conditions. They were stressed out because they were upset.
He wrote a series of brilliant articles challenging Selye’s theory point by point, explaining exactly why a physiological theory of stress didn’t work and a psychological theory did.
Because Selye’s theory had been spread all over the world for decades it stuck and is still accepted as being self-evident. We continue to believe that stress is a physical and emotional reaction to adverse external influences.
Dr John Mason’s Powerful Rebuttal
The following can be concluded from the work of Dr Mason and others who have made pioneering discoveries in recent years…
- is not a physical process with a psychological component but a psychological process with a physical component.
- doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life – it comes from your thoughts about what’s going on in your life
- is a manifestation of your internal landscape, of the beliefs and assumptions you hold about the world
- comes from inside out, not outside in
- cannot exist in the absence of thought; it is a psychological process, a process of interpretation
- is a function of beliefs, not circumstances, and the same is true for pressure.
Your job isn’t stressful – your thoughts about your job are stressful. Your relationship doesn’t stress you out – your thoughts about your relationship stress you out.
All stress is an inside job.
Misnomer #1: Physical Stress
Stress is a psychological state. “Physical stress” is thus misnamed.
Going on a long run, working long hours, being exposed to high temperature, or not getting enough sleep place tension on the body.
In a state of tension, the body will attempt to attain homeostasis: the body’s ability to maintain a steady state in spite of fluctuating conditions.
- The word ‘stress’ is for psychologically produced emotional responses
- The words ‘homeostatic condition’ is for biological challenges
There is no way to avoid physical adaptation to changing conditions. But when we say we’re stressed out, we mean we’re emotionally overwhelmed, not shivering, under slept or overheated.
Selye failed to distinguish between the body’s attempt to gain homeostasis, which he called ‘physical stress’, and psychological stress, mixing them together into a single stress concept.
Dr Mason showed that it is how the process is initiated that distinguishes them. Psychological stress requires the participation of thought. Biological changes on a cellular level do not.
Misnomer #2: Good Stress
Selye came up with the concept of ‘good stress’, coining the term ‘eustress’ after being forced to explain how stress might be seen as beneficial, such as the physical demands of sports or physical exertion.
- Distress – things that are stressful and negative
- Eustress – things that are stressful and positive
Selye suggested people minimize distress and maximize eustress in their lives.
By seeing stress as only biological, such a distinction follows logically. But when you recognise that stress is psychological in origin, the idea of eustress falls apart; activities such as sports are just enjoyable physical challenges.
Like “physical stress”, the concept of “good stress” is oxymoronic. There may be physical challenges that you enjoy, but no one enjoys the psychological angst that is stress. The fewer negative emotions the better.
Can Stress Be a Motivator?
Again, we need to make a distinction between, on the one hand, the psychological disquiet of stress that limits our abilities, and on the other, the focused, stimulated determination that motivates us.
Being motivated is characterised by having a goal, being stimulated and inspired, and by a desire to get the best out of yourself. Athletes call this being ‘in the zone’, and psychologists call this being in a ‘flow state’. This is in no way stressful, in fact, it’s characterised by a sense of ease, completely devoid of stress.
Stress, on the other hand, whether it’s anxiety, frustration, anger, or other negative emotions, limits your ability to perform in a number of ways:
- It makes you less creative
- it reduces your ability to concentrate
- it makes effective communication harder
- it shortens the amount of time you can sustain an effort
Stress is a demotivator. If you’re stressed out and succeeding, it’s in spite of stress, not because of it.
Psychosomatic: Starts in the Head, Manifests in the Body
Stress may start in your head but the effects on your body, your feelings, and your behaviours are very real and damaging. Plus, there is often a knock-on effect whereby the psychological strain causes people to engage in negative and damaging behaviour from eating junk food to smoking, excessive drinking, accompanied by truculent and antisocial behaviour.
These behaviours have their origin in your thought process but have tangible and dramatic effects both in your body and in your life.
We should never mistake the manifestation of stress in the body with its origin in the mind.
Recognising that stress begins in your head instead of your surroundings enables you to address it more strategically at its source.
Mitigation Vs. Elimination
In attempts at mitigating stress, we take vacations, do exercise and yoga, learn relaxation techniques, meditate, have massages, take anti-anxiety medications, and much else. Such strategies ameliorate stress by relieving the effects that it produces in the body, but they don’t address the cause.
The key to eliminating stress, not just managing it or escaping it, is to create a fundamental and lasting shift in the way you actually think.
- Understand that the source of stress is in your mind
- Identify its root in your mental landscape
- Use this insight to adjust your thinking so the stress is no longer produced (even though the external circumstances may appear exactly the same)
Modern man’s brain in triple the size of those of our six-million-year-old ancestors. The parts that have grown the most is the neocortex – the part responsible for abstract higher functions like conceptual thought.
Over the past million years, the human brain has evolved into the world’s most sophisticated abstract thinking machine. But abstract thinking alone isn’t problematic. Stress is produced by a particular kind of abstract thinking called counterfactual thought.
The first portion of that statement counters the facts of life as they actually are.
- “If I had more money, my life would be easier”
- ‘If I weighed less, then, I would be more attractive”
So, any statement that “counters the facts” of life is thinking counterfactually, because this thought counters the facts as they are. This definition plays a critical part in understanding how stress works.
Our five senses are inextricably bound to present experience. Thought, however, isn’t tied to immediate experience, and gives us the ability to tune out what’s going on in factual reality, and to shift our attention away from how things actually are to how things “should” be, or how they used to be like, or how we’re afraid they might be.
Some people spend most of their lives adrift in beliefs about what could or should have been and are hardly aware that they’re sowing the seeds of stress by thinking counterfactually. They’re aware only of the stress that results.
Take note of this, the emotional experience of stress doesn’t come from your job, your body, your family, your love life, your finances, or your responsibilities. Physical challenges such as fatigue and pain may actually come from these things, but remember that the emotional burden of stress comes from the act of thinking itself, it’s really from the lightning fast comparisons that is taking place in your subconscious mind between what really is and what your counterfactual belief about what “should” or “shouldn’t” be.
Every time you experience stress, you’re thinking counterfactually.
Expansive & Contractive Counterfactual Thought
Important to keep in mind is, while all stress comes from counterfactual thinking, not all counterfactual thinking produces stress.
It is always helpful to distinguish between two types of counterfactual thought.
Expansive Counterfactual Thought
Expansive thoughts make you feel wonderful – a new business you’ve just started, your soon-to-be-born child, a vacation you’re planning. These thoughts are all made possible by your neocortex’s ability to counterfactually depart from what “this” is and envision the “that”.
Contractive Counterfactual Thoughts
Negative emotions such as frustration, anger, sadness and fear exist on the flip side of counterfactuality. Instead of expanding your mind and raising you up to a higher level of joy, these actually contract you. Contractive thoughts will pull you down into a spiral of anxiety and depression and these are the kind of counterfactual thinking that produces stress.
Just like the physical contraction of a muscle, a mental contraction produces mental pain. This stress tells you that there has been a disruption in your subconscious thought process and that your mind has contracted away from the flow of life as it is.
The more stress you have in your life the more contracted beliefs you have in your subconscious mind (about money, success, love etc.). We’ve been taught that different emotional states are produced by different circumstances, but the truth is that your emotions are produced by your beliefs. This is why different people can be exposed to the exact same circumstance (such as public speaking) and have very different experiences.
Person 1: Belief – public speaking is a dangerous situation – Result: stress response
Person 2: Belief – public speaking is a great opportunity – Result: no stress
Variations in the Coping Mechanism
If you’ve ever seen people who remain calm during so-called stressful situations, you might have wondered what it is they’re doing that you’re not.
But the real question to ask is,
What are you doing that they’re not?
Answer: You are believing certain counterfactual thoughts.
You will be surprised to know that a stress-free life isn’t about trying to stay calm. From this perspective, the antidote to stress is not relaxation. It’s releasing counterfactual contractions by having insights.
The more directly you can pinpoint and get to the core of the contraction in your mind, the more powerful your insight will be.
The Linguistic Connection
Western culture’s linguistic system has strong counterfactual tendencies leading us to define “should” in terms of the ideal: “spouses should be faithful”, “children should tell the truth”. This idealised “should” is part of our value system and moral view, and it takes some effort to disentangle ourselves from this framework.
There are other cultures, notably the Piraha tribe of Amazonian Indians in Central Brazil, who have no counting system, no fixed terms for colour, no concept of war, no personal property, and fascinatingly, no counterfactuality in their language. Linguists who have visited them bring back accounts of how they were the happiest people they have ever encountered. Their language and culture seem to share a similar grounding in factual reality and peace of mind.
Neither is better than the other, it’s just how things are. But if you’re interested in living without stress, you need to challenge the structure of negative counterfactual thinking. By connecting your mind more to factual reality, the counterfactual “should” starts to break down. This leads to a simple and profound truth that what “should” be right now is.
Importantly, by accepting that what should be is, you are not passively accepting or condoning the unacceptable actions of others, or immoral situations. Rather, you’re seeing reality as it actually is, so you can create change, and not be left lamenting about some idealised situation where everything was exactly the way you think it “should” be. To achieve this, you need open eyes to reality, and a more peaceful mind, instead of disappearing down the well of negative counterfactuality, and its corollary, stress.
Negating Contracted Beliefs
Stress is the result of contracted beliefs born from negative counterfactual thinking.
If you’re overweight and you keep saying to yourself ‘I should be thin”, you’ve succumbed to negative counterfactual thinking which have contracted your beliefs and will lead to stress.
Instead, try negating the contracted belief. “in reality, i should not be thin at this time”, then prove how and why this is true (i eat too much, i snack on junk regularly, i never prepare my meals etc).
To make the change from the counterfactual “should” to the reality-based “should” you have to lean heavily on the qualifying words. In reality gently pulls you back to Earth, and at this time reminds you that we’re just talking about today, not the future. Then you have to prove the negation.
Remember: the word should addresses the core contradiction – the feeling that whatever is happening should not be.
As long as the word “should” remains buried in your mind, you will experience stress. What you need to do is dismantle your “shoulds”.
“should” Doesn’t Motivate
People think the “should” is what motivates them.
- “if I don’t think I should weigh less, I’ll never lose the weight”
- “if I don’t believe I should be more successful, I won’t work hard to get ahead”
This is simply not true.
The word “should” provides the contradiction. Seeing reality as it is removes the contradiction from your mind and lets you focus on your goals without the emotional upheaval and the negative behaviours that come with it. It’s a lot easier to work late or eat right when you’re feeling clear headed than when you’re feeling anxious and inadequate.
The idea that stress is a motivator is extremely pervasive. There is a more effective and far healthier way to motivate yourself, providing you much more energy because you won’t be bogged down by anxiety, anger and fear.
Insight as a means of Deconstructing Contractive Counterfactual Thinking
Unhappiness is a by-product of a certain kind of thinking. It arises internally, through the subconscious mind. And it is dissolved through introspection and finally, insight into the nature of the issue.
Insight allows us to see more clearly that what you had believed to be true is actually false, allowing the real truth to emerge.
Have you ever been hurt by something someone close to you has said and carried that stress around inside you for a period of time until you discovered that you had misheard or misunderstood them? The realization that you were mistaken instantly and automatically dissolved the stress, therefore changing how you felt and acted. As the false belief falls away, the truth that you hadn’t been able to see is revealed. Your perspective has been completely shifted by the insight.
Many people stubbornly carry grudges for years until some type of insight changes their point of view, removing them from a psychological emotional lock-groove of their own making.
There is a process you can use to consciously provoke a shift in your thinking anytime you feel angry, upset, or stressed out. That is, to use the power of insight at will.
Step 1: Identify the Issue(s)
Write on a blank sheet of paper what is stressful in your life. Use short, simple sentences including the words should and shouldn’t.
- “I should have more money”
- “I shouldn’t be so fat”
Each statement needs to concise and honest and capture your emotional charge.
Step 2: Rate Your Intensity of Belief
Rate how strongly you believe this statement on a scale from 0 to 10, 10 being the most. This quantifies your feelings so you can see how big an issue it is for you, and so you can measure your progress (we’ll do this step again at the end).
You’re typically looking for a rating of 7 or higher. Choose something that you experience as stressful.
Step 3: Identify Your Feelings and Actions
Explore the cause and effect relationship between what you believe, how you feel, and how you act. This step is broken into two parts:
Step 3a: How do you feel when you believe this? Angry, annoyed, anxious, confused, depressed, humiliated, embarrassed etc. Choose at least three feelings. Be honest and thorough.
Step 3b: How do you act when you feel this way? for example, when you feel angry, do you yell? Do you smoke, or drink, or eat certain foods?
Step 3 isn’t meant to be transformational. It’s meant to be revealing.
Emotions and behaviours don’t come out of nowhere. They come from your thoughts. Step 3 makes this visible. You can see that when you believe x, you feel y, and when you feel y, you do z. You see cause and effect in black and white made tangible through the written word.
Step 4: Negation
Negate the statement. Flip the main verb from negative to positive. Ask for the negation, not the opposite.
“he should love me more” not the opposite “he should hate me more”
“he should love me more” negated to “he should not love me more”
Once you’ve flipped the main verb, you add the qualifier so that having an insight will be a little easier. You can do this by adding the words In reality at the beginning of the negation and at this time at the end if you’re referring to the present or at that time if you’re referring to the past.
There are variations for some statements, but as a general rule this is helpful.
Examples of completed negations
“He should appreciate me more” becomes “In reality he should not appreciate me more at this time”
“That shouldn’t have happened” becomes “In reality, that should have happened at that time”
“I need more money” becomes “In reality I don’t need more money at this time”
“I should weigh less” becomes “In reality I should not weight less at this time”
At this point, the stress levels can sharpen substantially, but resistance is actually a good sign. It means you’re reaching a place where stress is actually created in your mind. The initial statement left alone, “I should weigh less” for example, would result in no feeling of resistance because you agree. But you also would experience no insight and would continue feeling stress.
Insight by its nature involves the emergence of new information, so it’s inherently challenging. And if you’re open to that, it can lead to a very different experience than the one you’ve been stuck in.
“You can’t solve a problem with the mind that created it” Einstein
You have to be open to seeing something new, and that means you have to be willing to challenge your own beliefs even though they see undeniably true.
Step 4: puts your hand on the switch you want to flip.
Step 5: Prove the Negation
Step 5 is where you flip it.
Here we must prove the negated statement is true.
Imagine yourself as a lawyer whose sole job is to prove why the negated statement is true. What would you come up with?
Negated statement: “In reality I should not weigh less at this time”
- I’ve been a little lazy and eaten take away food regularly
- I have stopped my regular intermittent fasting
- I only go to one exercise class per week
- I occasionally indulge my sweet tooth
- I have toast each morning for breakfast
Little by little you begin to flesh it out. And as you get more honest with yourself, it becomes clear that the negation which started out seeming absurd is true in reality.
This is what flipping the switch off requires. You have to see what you hadn’t. Insight means seeing into the situation more clearly. The more you see into it, the more change takes place.
This strategy asks you to ‘get real’, to own up to the truth. This is the heart of transformation.
Read the proof out loud to yourself. This gives you the chance to hear all the evidence at once. The absurd becomes the obvious. When the negation rings true, the switch has been flipped, and step 5 is finished.
Step 6: Identify Feelings and Actions of Negated Statement
Identify the feelings that come from the negated statement.
Step 6a: How do you feel when you see the truth of the negation? Calm, clear, enlightened, grateful, humble, relieved etc….
Step 6b: Describe how you might act when feeling this way. When you feel calm and clear, for example, what actions could come from that? Is there something you would do, or stop doing?
Perhaps you might apologise to those close to you for being in a bad mood all the time because you’re overweight, or accept the consequences of your own actions, or having a new resolve to control your bad eating habits etc….
Step 7: Re-Rate Original Belief
Rate the original belief again (not the negation). It’s often helpful to add the qualifying phrase “in reality at this/that time” to the original statement so your mind stays focused on the original meaning.
“In reality at this time I should weigh less”
This statement is now seen to be a ridiculous assertion, given the evidence to the contrary now understood.
Compare the ratings from Step 2 to Step 7. 9 or 10 becomes 0 or 1
Keep in mind that you’re not condoning anything, nor are you suggesting that you want things to remain this way. You’re simply focusing your attention on the truth as it appears in a single moment.
The effect of the insight can be dramatic. You can solidly believe that you should weigh less, and as a result be depressed, angry, bitter and stressed, and act that out. Afterward, you can see why in reality you should not weigh less at this moment, and you’ll feel and act differently.