Stress & The Power of Perception

Woman salt flat.

Various theories on stress and the stress response exist. From a psychological perspective, stress is directly related to perception (good news for those in Buddhist psychotherapy!). Lazarus and Folkman's "Cognitive Appraisal Theory" (1984) highlights the role of perception in regard to stress, demonstrating that stress is a result of two appraisals. In the first or primary appraisal, an individual would perceive that a threat or challenge exists, and in his or her secondary appraisal, that individual would determine that he or she is not equipped to meet said challenge.

More recent research, highlighted by Kelly McGonigal in her TED talk "How to Make Stress Your Friend" (watch it here), further underscores the importance of subjective perception in regard to stress (and the physiological process that results from such an appraisal). Research has found that the key difference between "stressed-out" individuals with poor health outcomes (including death) and "stressed-out" individuals with much better health outcomes was whether or not an individual believed stress to be harmful to his or her health. That's right. The stress belief - literally a story in our minds! - was responsible for disease, physiological harm and even death! In this sense, one could tack on a "tertiary appraisal" to Lazarus and Folkman's theory: in addition to believing that 1. a challenge exists and 2. I cannot meet this challenge, a third "stress perception" is that "stress is bad".

If this isn't a great example of how the mind and body truly are inextricably linked, I don't know what is. And the real beauty and optimism of all this is that the one thing we really can control is our minds! For many of us, we can't actually change the "source" of stress - be it a relationship, job or other factor. As Victor Frankl, founder of logotherapy, said "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

So if you're unwilling or unable to leave or change whatever situations cause you the most stress in your life, take a look in the mirror. Or rather, peek inside your head. Are you able to manage your internal monologue or do you simply let your inner critic run amuck? Are you telling yourself negative stories about situations, your ability to respond effectively to them, and/or stress itself? (which is not actually "bad" for you in small doses - the "right amount" of stress actually improves focus and performance).

If you answered "yes" to the above questions, it might be time to consider changing how you think about stress. Try to positively reframe situations that you typically label "stressful", focusing on the beneficial aspects of these experiences (ie, adversity helps us grow). Second, shore up your reserves of self-confidence! As I mentioned above, the secondary appraisal of Cognitive Appraisal Theory pertains to your own abilities to handle the perceived stressor. So perhaps it's time to believe in yourself a bit more and tune out the negativity in your mind.

Finally, remind yourself that stress is not inherently bad. Try to tell yourself a different story about who you are, what stress is and how you can handle it. And who knows, you might end up feeling grateful to your stress for teaching you how to become a more positive, self-loving individual!


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