The Myth of Stress

       "Stress doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life, it comes from your thoughts about what's going on in your life.”

          The following is from Andrew Bernstein and has fundamentally changed the way I think and therefore feel, and improved my life day to day. If you want a potentially empowering shift in mindset, read on.
        “The party line idea is that the reason we experience so much stress today is because once upon a time our caveman and cavewoman ancestors would face challenges like sabre tooth tigers. In that scenario, a hormonal cascade - adrenaline, cortisol - is certainly helpful. you want that because it’s going to liberate glucose, you’re more likely to survive that encounter and then have offspring. If you didn’t have that, you don’t survive and you don’t have offspring. So over many generations that sequence of tiger - stress response, tiger - stress response gets strengthened, but then we’re told it stops working for us in modern times. We’re told it works against us because now there are no longer saber tooth tigers but instead traffic jams and flight delays and issues with our kids and our jobs and money and our in-laws. We’re told we’ve become victims of our own biology. That what was an occasionally helpful response is now a constant harmful response and all we can do is manage our stress. That whole idea is what I call the myth of stress. Now, stress is real. But the myth is that stress comes from the external world, from circumstances, from what we call stressors. My argument is that stress doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life, it comes from your thoughts about what's going on in your life. “

             “We’re not facing tigers anymore. Most of us are facing challenges with money and success and family life and work life balance. And that’s a very different game. So I want people to step back and challenge the broader concept so that you can see that stress is actually coming from something in your thoughts. This takes stress out of the physiological, biological domain and puts in the educational domain, so now stress is a skills gap.” Like so many core aspects of life, this holds true, which is liberating and empowering, and simultaneously challenging, because now we have to methodically, routinely build a skill, expending attention and focus, and giving up excuses about aspects of our life being innate and outside our influence. It’s a profoundly important concept that gets underappreciated. We easily accept the skill development paradigm when it comes to sports, music, arts, academics, etc., but we don’t lend the same credence to skill development when it comes to learning how to be mentally fit, emotionally intelligent, compassionate, diligent, forgiving. Imagine if we applied the same methodology and rigor to developing compassion, or contentment, as we do for become a professional athlete? Every time I feel stressed now, I stop and dissect the thoughts that are producing my stress, and this idea is confirmed. There is no physical, external item that is causing my stress outside of my thoughts. That is profound for me. Bernstein continues,
             “Today, through neurophysiology and neurobiology you can start to measure some of the changes that take place in the brain when you do have an insight or when you do have a shift in mindset. For some people that’s what they need in order to take it seriously. If they can see a change and a scan, they’re going to say ‘oh it’s real and so I want to learn how to do this.’ But whether you see it on a scan or not, you feel it. So however you get there, whether it’s through religion or imaging scans, ultimately we want someone to take seriously the fact that your thinking matters. And there are different ways to think about real challenges in your life so that you can address them more clearly.”


             If you look at stress as coming from the outside world, then every stress is a little bit different. Stress around work could be different from stress around your health or your body and stress around your family or your future. Those look like very different things and they get carved into different kinds of trainings. But to me, on the inside they all have their roots in a very specific kind of response that our brains happen to engage in very easily and very often because of how our brains evolved. It all comes down to counterfactual thinking. If you see life as it is--factually-- then there’s no stress response. If you see a tiger the way you would see a tiger at a zoo, or if you were a baby tiger and you see your mother tiger, you just see the tiger and there’s no stress response. When you have the thought, however, “that tiger is going to kill me”, then the stress begins. The thought happens very quickly. In that scenario, counterfactual thinking is really helpful. We want that. But what’s happening now is our brains are thinking counterfactually all the time in ways that don’t help us. We think ‘I should have more money, my spouse should appreciate me more, I should be in better shape.’ That kind of thinking and the stress that it produces gets in our way. I would like people to get more sensitive to what's going on in their heads and then we can talk about how to challenge that thinking in a truly effective way.
            "The sneaky thing about it is you wouldn’t even think it’s counterfactual. You think it is factual. You think ‘but I should be in better shape. I should be making more money. My mother shouldn’t criticize me. As if those are facts. Our brain’s ability to think abstractly and not see life as it is, but instead to see life how we think it’s supposed to be, is very subtle and sneaky and pervasive. We’re rarely even aware of it.”
          This is where I’m reminded of Yuval Harari’s powerful illustrations of this same ability, the ability to think abstractly, or as he puts it, to imagine things that do not exist. I’ve been using Harari’s concept of Imagined Orders to inform my recent works. He has shown how almost infinitely potent this capacity is (a probable reason our species defeated Neanderthals; the main factor that enables empires, nations, laws, human rights, money, and your innermost desires to exist). I think it is impactful to demonstrate with Harari’s sweeping examples from history and culture how powerful this ability is, and then understand that we can use this same ability the way Bernstein suggests to understand how capable we are of changing our understanding of our experiences, and becoming happier (or less unhappy as he would argue is more important)

              More from Bernstein: “There’s some interesting studies showing how happiness and unhappiness don’t have the same valence. Meaning, it’s a lot easier to get upset about something and stay upset about it for a long time than it is to be happy about it and stay happy about it. We have what’s called a negativity bias. So there emerges a real interesting strategic question: if we want to live a happier life do we try to increase our happiness by spending more time with our family and doing things that we love, or do we instead focus on decreasing our unhappiness? Positive psychology, which is a pretty popular movement now, is all about adding more to the positive side of the equation. But I think that learning what drags you down, what you experience stress around, what causes you frustration, anger, sadness, and then finding a way to learn to think differently about it could have more net value. I think that the behavioral side of it gets over emphasized. We spend a lot of time on behavior and external change and not enough time on mindset and internal change.
             A very simple way to prove to yourself that there’s no such thing as a stressor is to think about how stress works. if we all go out in the rain, we’re all going to get wet. Because rain is a legitimate external circumstance. If we all go into traffic, we’re not all going to experience stress. Some people will but some people won’t. So you can’t say that traffic works like rain and yet if you look at how the world talks about traffic or moving or getting married or getting divorced, we call these stressful life events. We say that they’re stressors and yet they’re not. They’re not inherently stress producing. If you have a thought like there shouldn’t be so much traffic, then you will experience stress. If you don’t have that thought, you can sit in traffic all day long and not experience stress. That’s why I say there are no stressors, that instead stress is always a function of your thinking and not your circumstances. It doesn’t mean that we don’t face some really challenging circumstances. But I’ve worked with emergency room physicians and Navy SEALS, and some of them are people who are in circumstances that the world would say are inherently stress-producing, yet they don’t experience stress. Navy seals don’t experience stress because they’re trained and they think differently. ER docs think differently. Stress is real but this idea of stressors should disappear, because it confines us to thinking about our emotional reactions as driven from the outside in and it blocks us from getting smarter about figuring out what’s going on in your thoughts.”

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