Back to the Basics
It has been a few years since my very first post on stress was published in this blog. Since then I’ve taken you through my multi-level defense system against stress and introduced you to a new way of looking at stress and coping.
So What is Stress Really About?
Stress is a combination of three things; (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tells you about how threatening the potential stressor is (your self-talk) and (3) a stress response that kicks in if your mind tells you that you can’t cope.
Threat is a hard concept to wrap your head around. Most people can visualize physical threats such as someone coming at you with a knife in their hand or a truck swerving into your lane on the highway. It is much harder however to think about more subtle interpersonal threats such as nasty comments someone makes about you or a troubling story on the news.
Neither of those threats are direct and an imminent source of harm. They are more subtle and subject to interpretation. Threat is very subjective and is defined differently for different people. What threatens you may not threaten me and vice versa.
When you can view a specific threat to your well-being as a potential stressor instead of just calling it a stressor because everyone else views it that way, it gives you some degree of control over it. It doesn’t have to instantly trigger a stress response. Viewing something as a potential stressor empowers you to be able to step back and distance yourself from the threat while you evaluate how it affects you personally.
A potential stressor might still turn out to be threatening but if your mind tells you that you can cope with the threat it defuses it as a stressor and stops a stress response from happening.
Let me give you an example using a new study as the potential stressor.
Imagine that you are watching the news and the coverage all day has revolved around a new study that predicted that Social Security will be bankrupt by 2050 if the revenue streams that feed into it continue on their current path.
The first thing to remember and tell yourself is; “This is news coverage about a new study. It is NOT the same thing as losing my Social Security now or in the future. It is just news coverage about a study.”
This new study is a potential stressor that could affect you and millions of other Americans who have been watching the news all day.
What Your Mind Tells You About The Threat
Rather than just accept this news as a stressor you decide to label it a potential stressor and try to evaluate the threat involved in it and judge your personal ability to cope with it.
Think about all of the variables involved in assessing the degree of threat in this potential stressor.
They would include such things as your :
- Current Social Security status (are you collecting, about to collect in the near future, many years removed from collecting?).
- Age (what is your current age, your age in 2050?).
- Job History (how much have your earned towards your Social Security payout?).
- Retirement Savings (savings and investments other than Social Security contributions).
- Spouse/Domestic Partner Status (all of the previous variables as they relate to your spouse/domestic partner).
- Children (if you have any and what their financial outlook is like)
These are just a few of the variables that factor into how you assess the threat posed by the potential stressor, the new study. Besides those factors being related to the degree of threat posed by Social Security going bankrupt they also affect your ability to cope.
What Your Mind Tells You About Your Coping Ability
Some or all of the factors described previously will influence your ability to cope with the new study. For example, you might already be collecting Social Security and realize that historically, most people like you would be grandfathered/mothered into the program. Usually when programs are scaled back or eliminated they use a last in, first out, formula for deciding who will suffer. Other options such as reduced benefits are likely to occur before your funds are completely cut off.
If your age makes it unlikely that you or your partner will be alive in 2050 you will probably feel less threatened than someone in their 20s who probably will be alive when the money runs out.
Lastly, if you have been contributing to an alternate retirement program and don’t have to rely completely on Social Security you might feel less threatened by the new study than someone who was planning on living off of their Social Security.
I’m not trying to suggest that Social Security going bankrupt isn’t going to be threatening to millions of Americans. The point I am trying to make is that a “new study” about the “possibility” of Social Security going bankrupt “31 years from now” doesn’t have to automatically stress you out. You have some say in the matter.
You might still be troubled by the news but your body won’t go into a full-fledged stress response that releases powerful hormones, salts, and sugars that jack up your blood pressure, get your heart racing, tense-up all of your major muscles and give you energy to fight or flee.
A Stress Response
A stress response releases powerful hormones, salts, and sugars that jack up your blood pressure, get your heart racing, tense-up all of your major muscles and give you energy to fight or flee. The initial stress response is also known as the Fight or Flight Response.
Once your mind says, “this is threatening and I can’t cope with it”, your brain instantly triggers the fight or flight response . This is a life-saving response to threat and it has been with all humans since the dawn of civilization. This response can save your life by literally fighting or fleeing from an imminent threat (like a mugger or a car swerving into your lane on the highway).
However, being exposed to chronic stressors can cause serious physical and mental health problems. Chronic stressors are things like failing relationships, financial pressures, contentious work relationships, and caring for aging parents. These kinds of ongoing stressors result in the continual triggering of the stress response. Unfortunately, many of us who are exposed to chronic stressors cannot avoid or eliminate them and must learn how to minimize their impact by co-existing and coping with them.