What causes stress?
Let’s define stress and suggest a few ideas about what causes stress.
I really like the definition given by Hans Selye, who is considered the father of modern stress theory. He explained that stress is felt when, “you perceive that the resources available do not match the demands made upon you.”
There are of course, some stresses which you cannot avoid. A traumatic event such as a death of a loved one or an accident will push their way in and will almost certainly cause stress and there is almost no way to avoid that stress happening.
However many of the stresses we have in our day to day lives are really about a choice that we make. Just read again that definition and notice that it is about perception. Let us just imagine that you are at work and given a new piece of work to do. That would ordinarily be fine but you today have to get it done within the next two hours and cannot stay late due to a family commitment this evening. Suddenly you experience that feeling of stress. This happened since you perceived that your resources, meaning your ability to do the work are not enough. You decided that you do not have the ability to get it done. Maybe you thought to yourself that you cannot work quickly enough, or have enough background expertise or grasp of the material. Either way, you decided that you did not have enough resources to hand to get it done on time and this perception led to those feelings of being under pressure or out of control.
We can allow events to stress us as well. For example, for you jumping out of a plane might be the most exciting and exhilarating thing to do. However for me, I would be scared out of my wits! The difference between us would be that you have confidence that you will cope in that situation. In fact your level of confidence allows you to focus on how much fun it will be for you. On the other hand, I cannot even begin to think about there being any fun aspects since I am right now far too overcome by thoughts about how I will not cope with jumping from the plane!
So, we have two aspects of what causes stress for us. Some stresses are unavoidable, since these powerful and traumatic events are so strong that anyone, even the most thick-skinned person, would be affected. However in most situations, it is more often the case that we have actually allowed ourselves to get stressed. We decide that we cannot cope or do not have the resources to succeed and so it is our perception which then leads to the stress felt.
Where are those areas where you allow stress in? Where does your low level of confidence in a situation result in feeling stress? How can you think about those situations differently?