Over 50 years ago, Hans Selye, the father of modern stress research, defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand.” This way of viewing stress implied that any demand that threw your body out of equilibrium, whether it was something positive (you inherit $1,000,000 dollars etc.) or negative (you lose your job etc.), would trigger a stress response. While this was a pioneering vision 50 years ago, current research from the fields of psychology and brain physiology has shown that it isn’t the demand that triggers your stress, it is what your mind tells you about the demand your self-talk, that triggers your stress response.
When you are exposed to a potential stressor a transaction goes on in your mind between it and your self-talk about how threatening it is and whether or not you can cope with it. Two questions related to the potential stressor flash through your mind instantly; ” Is it threatening?”, and “Can I cope with it?” If you answer, “Yes it is threatening” and “No I can’t cope with it”, your brain will trigger a stress response. If you tell yourself, “No it isn’t threatening” and “Yes, I can cope with it”, your mind does not trigger a stress response. Lastly, if you feel something is threatening but you can cope with it and say to yourself, “Yes this is threatening but I can cope with it”, your mind will not trigger a stress response.
Defining stress as a transaction between you and a potential stressor is an entirely new way of looking at stress. It puts you in the driver’s seat for determining whether or not a potential stressor becomes an actual stressor and triggers a stress response. In other words, the leap from potential stressor to stress response doesn’t happen automatically. Your mind determines how threatening a potential stressor actually is and assesses the coping resources you have to manage it. Since viewing stress this way begins with your perception of threat and your ability to cope with it, you can short-circuit the stress response by accurately gauging the threat a potential stressor really poses and your ability to cope with it. Most people overestimate the threat posed by potential stressors and underestimate their ability to cope with it. Even if you are like most people in this respect, you can LEARN HOW to improve your ability to gauge threat and your ability to cope with it more accurately by mastering certain cognitive and behavioral skills.
Cognitive skills revolve around rethinking, or changing the way you think about potential stressors. They focus on improving your mind’s ability to think more clearly about potential stressors, the threat they actually pose, and your ability to cope with them. Behavioral skills teach you how to relax your body and release tension, how to reduce excess demands on your time and life, and how to set and achieve goals based on your values and what is most important to you in life. Both sets of skills will help you feel less threatened by potential stressors and more able to cope with them.
The Five R’s of Coping With Stress
I’ve incorporated both cognitive and behavioral skills into an approach for managing stress that is based on helping you assess threat more accurately and develop a personal toolbox of coping strategies to deal with stressors. The approach I’ve used with thousands of students and clients revolves around a five-level defense system against stress called the Five R’s of Coping. Each “R” represents a different approach to reducing threat and improving coping. The Five R’s; Rethink, Relax, Release, Reduce, and Reorganize, combine in a synergistic way to give you a more flexible system of coping with stress that can be used to combat any type of stressor you will face.
There are three components to rethinking your stress. The first involves understanding how your mind works when stressed. It is based on principles from Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The second examines how your values, goals, and views about your life are related to your stress. It also emphasizes the importance of clarifying your values and setting values-based goals. The third component involves learning how to harness the power of your mind to manage stressful thinking.
The relaxed state and the stressed state are incompatible. You cannot be relaxed and stressed at the same time. This “R” revolves around learning four proven relaxation strategies that will help you put your body in a relaxed state that is incompatible with stress.
The stress response results in the mobilization of tension and energy. A simple but effective way to manage stress is to use mild, moderate, vigorous, and cathartic physical activity to dissipate the tension and energy mobilized during the stress response.
Challenge is a concept that has replaced the notion of good stress or what Selye called “eustress.” You can turn potential stressors into challenges by finding your optimal level of demand and stimulation. This is the point where you are engaged in just the right amount of different activities to be challenged by the demands in your life, not stressed by them.
Stress transactions do not take place in a vacuum. They are influenced by your overall level of health at the time of your exposure to potential stressors. Reorganize helps you manage stress by showing you how to incorporate stress-reducing hardy health habits into your daily routine.
Developing A Personal Stress Management Plan
Since stress is such a personal phenomenon determined by the way your mind views threat and your ability to cope with it, your stress management plan must be tailored to this. Each “R” in the five R’s framework contains several different strategies for managing stress. You can choose strategies from each of the Five R’s to develop a multi-level personal defense system against stress that you can use to manage all of your potential stressors.
The next seven articles in this series will show you how to do just that. I hope you follow the series and start to take charge of your stress.
Dr Rich Blonna