We may not be able to avoid stress, but we can influence how it affects us. Learn the four factors that drive our response to stress and simple—but effective—tools for changing how you experience it.
Most people living in the modern world experience continuous stress in the form of daily hassles, relationship troubles, problems at work, chronic illness, or other external life events.
Have you ever wondered why some people are devastated by this stress, while others are relatively unaffected? Or why some people thrive in high-pressure, driven work environments while others self-destruct?
The reason different people respond so differently to the same stressors is that our response to stress is largely defined by perception.
In other words, although there are certain events that virtually all people experience as stressful (such as the death of a loved one), it is our subjective perception of the event—and the meaning that we assign to it—that determines how we respond.
Say you’ve just had a fight with your partner. If you perceive it as a trivial, passing event with little significance, it is unlikely to trigger a significant stress response. However, if you see it as a sign that your relationship is doomed and will be a lifelong source of unhappiness (okay, I’m exaggerating to make a point!), you can bet that it will trigger a massive stress response.
4 key factors that determine how we respond to stress
So what determines the intensity of our response to a particular stressor? Research has identified four key factors:
- The novelty of the event
- The unpredictable nature of the event
- A perceived threat to our body or ego
- A sense of loss of control
Some researchers and clinicians use the acronym N.U.T.S. (novelty, unpredictability, threat, sense of no control) to refer to them. I think that’s perfect!
This concept of perceived stress has important implications.
The first is that we can influence how we respond to stressors by changing how we perceive them. In psychology, this is known as “reframing.”
Let’s say you lose your job. If you perceive that event as a sign of your worthlessness and an indicator that you’ll never be successful, I think you can imagine how your body will respond (it won’t be fun!).
But what if you saw the loss of your job as an opportunity to pursue a longtime dream that you’ve ignored and a chance for a fresh start? In this case, losing your job would be unlikely to trigger a harmful stress response and may even be a source of “eustress,” or positive stress.
I’m not suggesting that it’s possible, or even desirable, to put a positive spin on tragic or horrific events. But if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by all of the minor, daily hassles that characterize most of our lives, reframing can be a powerful way of mitigating the impact of that stress.
5 tools for reframing stressful experiences
The good news about reframing is that it gives us a measure of control over how we respond to the stressful events of life. As I mentioned above, a sense of loss of control is one of the four key factors that drive our response to stress, so anything that we can do to improve this sense of control can have a profound effect.
Here are five tools that you can use to reframe stressful experiences.
- Question your thoughts. Recognize that your thoughts about the stressful event are just thoughts—they aren’t real, and you don’t have to believe them. Ask yourself whether your thoughts are really true and accurate, or whether they are just a perception or belief.
- Embrace a threat as a challenge. Ask yourself if there is a seed of opportunity or growth in the stressful event. For example, if you’ve just been diagnosed with a chronic illness, can you use that event as a way of giving yourself permission to take better care of yourself?
- Expand your time horizon. Ask yourself whether what you’re upset about will matter in a month, a year, or a decade. Even more powerful is the “rocking chair test.” Imagine yourself at 100 years old, in a rocking chair, reflecting on your life. Will this event matter? Will you even remember it at all?
- Increase your sense of control. We can’t control everything, and trying to do that is a recipe for suffering (both for you and for those around you!). That said, research has shown that it is our sense of control, rather than actually being in control, that determines how strongly stress impacts us. Focusing your attention on the things that you can influence, finding creative solutions, and making a list of resources you can draw on or people you can ask for help can increase your sense of control and minimize the effect that the stressful event has on you.
- Recognize that not all stress is harmful. When I first started to do a lot of public speaking, I interpreted the faster heartbeat, damp hands, and shakiness I felt before going up on stage as “anxiety.” Over time, I learned to see those symptoms simply as an expression of the energy, excitement, and anticipation I was feeling—as something positive, rather than negative. Just changing how I perceived the meaning of these sensations completely altered my experience of them.
Why mindfulness is so important
The tools above can be powerful allies in stressful situations, but they all depend upon one thing: your capacity to stay present in a difficult situation.
Stressful experiences often trigger a cascade of fears, anxieties, and “stories” we tell ourselves about what the event means about us or our future (i.e., “I didn’t get this job. I’ll never be successful!”).
If we are not able to stay present when we experience stress, we’re less likely to be able to do things like question our thoughts, embrace threats as a challenge, or expand our time horizon because we’re so carried away by our thought process that we can’t interrupt it.
This is why I’m such a big believer in mindfulness practice. It helps us to ground our attention in the present moment and focus on what is, right now, rather than what we fear might be.
Worrying about the future is especially stressful because we don’t have control over it and can’t respond to imagined threats. But we can influence how we respond to what is happening in the present moment, if that is where we direct our attention.
Here are a few simple tips for getting started with mindfulness practice, from psychologist and mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn:
- Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.
- Notice—really notice—what you’re sensing in a given moment: the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.
- Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.
- Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in your office chair.
There are numerous ways to learn more about mindfulness and deepen your practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program is a great place to start. You can take an eight-week class at many locations across the US, or learn online. My 14Four program, which helps you optimize your diet, sleep, physical activity, and stress management in 14 days, has several mindfulness tutorials on audio and video. And this link has some additional resources and videos worth checking out.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT): Mindfulness + Reframing
Both mindfulness and reframing are powerful tools in changing how we respond to stress, but when you put them together, they’re even more effective. This is exactly what Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is all about.
Way back in 2008, I wrote about a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that showed that MBCT proved as effective as antidepressants in preventing depression relapse and more effective in enhancing people’s quality of life. The study also showed MBCT to be as cost-effective as prescription drugs in helping people with a history of depression stay well in the longer term.
Over the 15 months after the trial, 47 percent of the group following the MBCT course experienced a relapse, compared with 60 percent of those continuing their normal treatment, including anti-depressant drugs. In addition, the group on the MBCT program reported a higher quality of life in terms of their overall enjoyment of daily living and physical well-being.
MBCT was developed by a team of psychologists from Toronto (Zindel Segal), Oxford (Mark Williams), and Cambridge (John Teasdale) in 2002 to help people who suffer repeated bouts of depression. It focuses on reframing negative thinking and aims to help people who are vulnerable to recurring depression stop depressed moods from spiralling out of control into a full episode of depression.
For more about MBCT, including information about classes and training, check out MBCT.com. I also recommend searching for a local MBCT practitioner to work with in your area if you think this approach would benefit you.