What Is The Leading Cause of Stress?

Reality is the Leading Cause of Stress

"I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it. I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle I found it too confining. It was just too needful; it expected me to be there for it all the time, and with all I have to do, I had to let something go.

"Now, since I put reality on the back burner, my days are jam-packed and fun-filled..."

This quote is from Jane Wagner's delightful book Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It is spoken by a bag lady in New York City, a character Lily Tomlin made famous in her one-woman show. Buttons with "Reality is the leading cause of stress" are popular because everyone can relate. We can also relate to "my days are jam-packed". But we have a little problem with experiencing them as "fun-filled".

Do we have to "put reality on the back burner" to have fun? That's what it seems like. After all, with all the problems in the world and all the stress in our lives, escaping reality seems to be required. But, just as the cold hard reality of the ancestral world put evolutionary pressure to work creating Homo sapiens, our current life circumstance is putting pressure on us to experiment and discover the variation that allows us to better adapt. The adjustments we make may serve our own personal evolution. We may discover that stress is really the spice of life and that we can have a few more laughs and a little more fun along the way. That wouldn't be normal, but it would be healthy.

Life Is Stressful, Then We Die?

We hear and talk about stress all the time, so it's a good place to start. The easiest way to jump into this is just to free-associate with the word stress. Think about stress; whatever comes up for you, write down. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Here's a sample list from a group with whom I recently met:

  • other people 
  • shame
  • humanity 
  • relationships
  • I'm okay; you're not 
  • marriage
  • loss of control 
  • prior marriage
  • close down 
  • family
  • anxiety 
  • children
  • the weather 
  • neighbors
  • lack of balance 
  • co-workers
  • exhaustion 
  • sobriety
  • sleeplessness 
  • age
  • adrenaline
  • expectations
  • perfectionism
  • not enough time
  • not enough money
  • traffic
  • jobs
  • technology
  • guilt

Now we're going to do a little systems thinking. If you think about a systems approach to the problem of stress, a couple of things immediately stand out -- there are stressors and our responses to those stressors. The stressors are the INputs that we feel are causal. When we're anxious, there's usually some cause for the anxiety. Often it has to do with other people, relationships. We have relationships at work and at home. So a lot of what stresses us is connected to relationships.

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You've heard of the feather effect? Let's say a whole bunch of things have gone wrong in your day. You get home and your kid does something, and you go ballistic. It's the feather. It's not what your kid did that caused you to decompensate. It's everything else that you're carrying around and stuffing, maybe work and other things like traffic. You get home and your child puts the feather on the pile. You just explode.

We have stress at home, stress at work, stress in traffic. Stressors wherever we turn. And, if our home lives are stressful and our work lives are stressful, and it's stressful going back and forth, would it be fair to say that life is stressful? Yes. Is life fair? No. Is it going to get fair? No. Life is stressful and then we die.

That's an uplifting thought. And who knows, death may be stressful. Even in the best-case scenario, I think it's going to be stressful for me. Think of life as a movie that we view with God when we die. I don't know about you, but that will be a little stressful for me. I'm counting on a divine sense of humor.

How Can We Make Things Better?

And because life isn't fair, I think we have the right to whine, bitch, complain, and moan. Maybe even get that little blood vessel at the temple to pulsate. I think we should take five minutes out of every day to really get into it, but at the end of five minutes, then what? That life is unfair is a given. That being true, amidst the unfairness, how can we make things better?

We have stressors. We have life -- home life, work life, traffic -- putting stressors into our INbox. We respond to life by what goes out of our OUTbox. The responses that we generate when life stresses us generally are more negative than positive.

Thus, it is possible for us to respond negatively to our lives. Would all the negative people out there please stand up? I certainly don't see myself as a negative person, but I know how to make a bad situation worse. I know how to compound a problem by virtue of my response to the problem. Why would we respond negatively to life? We're not negative people, at least not most of us.

Think about this. When you were a little kid, how did you see grown-ups respond to stress? Anger, frustration, yelling... negatively. If it was snowing out and they had to drive you someplace, their reaction had a negative charge. It was a bad thing. "If you had to drive in this, you'd be unhappy too!"

Our conditioned responses come out of early training. In a sense, we're doing what we know: The baton has been passed and now we are them. We are the people we used to complain about. We are the grown-ups, and we can be doing what is normal but not healthy. But it is what we learned.

Controlling our OUT Box

Reality is the Leading Cause of StressLet's talk about control. Anytime we think about stress, we need to focus energy and attention where we have power and control. Energy follows attention; what we pay attention to we have energy for. But where do we tend to focus in this closed-loop system? We focus on what is coming at us from the environment. We focus on INput, other people.

Other people put things into our INbox. We focus on what's coming at us, and allow that to drive our behavior and mood. And how do we end up feeling?

Negative. Stressed.

How much control do you have over what your ex-spouse puts into your INbox? Your spouse? Your kids? Your co-workers? The other drivers on the highway? How much control do you have over INput in this system?

Some people may feel that they have quite a bit of control over what life places in their INbox. Others may feel quite the opposite -- that they have very little control over INput. I would side with the latter group.

Now I said control and not influence. And the reason I make the distinction is that in dealing with stress, it's important to focus energy and attention where we have power and control. And my bias is that we don't have control over what life puts into our INbox. We don't have control over how other people treat us. We don't have control over the deadline our boss gives us. We don't have control over our coworker calling in sick the day before the deadline. We don't have control over whether our parents get divorced.

So the flashlight of our attention is on what is coming at us from the environment, on what life is putting into our INbox. And our energy system is driven by what we pay attention to. We have energy to deal with the behavior of these other people. But they're driving how we use our energy.

Here's the kicker. Like other animals, we have been conditioned by what has come at us from the environment in the past. We have developed a set of behaviors in response to certain stimuli. We operate out of that conditioned database of responses. In fact, other people may actually know something about that learning. They may know how we're going to respond, and they use our predictability to manipulate us. The problem is, sometimes it works.

Most of our human relationships are about trying to figure out what to put into other people's INbox to get them to do something, or to feel something. It isn't just that other people try to control us. We also try to control others. It's a good example of normal-not-being-healthy. Trying to figure out how to get other people to do things consumes a great deal of energy. But sometimes it works. So we do what we learned, just like children.

Timing Is Everything

Imagine this scenario. Neighborhood kids get together to figure out some kid scam. The big kids huddle together to work on the plan. One planner's little sister is listening in on the conversation and hears her big sis say, "But first we'll have to ask my mom permission." The younger sibling knows that it's her mom, too, so she runs in Mom's direction. Her big sister sees her and runs after her. "What the heck do you think you're doing?"

"Well, you said we had to get Mom's permission first. So I was gonna ask..."

"You dummy. You can't just ask her out of the blue. You have to wait 'til she's in a good mood."

Good moooooooooooooooooooooood.

Timing is everything. Ever try to milk a cow at noon? You can milk cows in the morning, and you can milk them in the evening. Forget noon. Timing is everything. And we learned when to milk our parents. Wait until they're in a good mood and then attack. And guess what happens? It works. So we do what we know works. We do what we learned and what is familiar to us. But just because something works doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Spending our energy trying to manipulate others does not promote healthy relationships. And when other folks note our behavior, our response is denial. "How dare you say I'm a manipulative person. I am not like that. I can't stand manipulative people." Truth is, that's what we learned. It's normal but not healthy.

Manipulation, Influence, Control

Because of our ability to manipulate others, we get control and influence mixed up. They are not the same thing. We have influence over others and control over ourselves. Part of normal-not-being-healthy is that we think we should have control where we don't.

Say the person you are going with or married to is depressed. How does it feel being around him or her? Depressing. You try to figure out the right combination of words to place in that person's INbox to get him or her to feel better. You try several times and fail. You think, If I were just more clever, smarter, or something, I could figure out that right combination of words.

The fact is, another's mood is not your responsibility. Your own mood is your responsibility. But we give power and control over to others and allow them to drive our mood. So now our melancholy is their fault. Tell me, is that healthy?

By the way, what happens when others figure out that we are trying to manipulate them into doing or feeling something? This is interesting. Think of your classic stereotypic salesperson. What puts you off as you consider the stereotype? Could it be that we feel pressure from salespeople to do what they want us to do? Once we sense that pressure, it creates resistance in us.

Motivation, not Control

The relationship between control and motivation is inverse. The more controlling we are of others, the more resistance we create to the very thing we want them to do. The more controlling we are of others, the more we demotivate them to change. If high control worked to get people to change, our prison system would work. We have a lot of control over inmates, yet high recidivism -- high control, little positive change.

We do have control in this closed-loop system. Although we do not have control over what life puts into our INbox, we do have control over how we respond to INput. If we focus on what goes out of our OUTbox, we attend to the place in the system where we have power and control.

Here, a perceptual shift, from INput to OUTput, brings a responsibility shift. Before, other people were the problem in my life. Now, I see that I am the problem in my life. I am THE problem. But I am also the solution.

Without anyone else changing, without anyone else doing anything differently, what can I do to be healthy? What can I do to have a healthier relationship with myself, have healthier relationships with other people, be more effective at whatever I do, and have more fun getting better? These are things that interest me. Remember, health here is concerned with our working, loving, playing, and thinking.

I Am the Problem in My Life

Seeing myself as the problem in my life doesn't mean that other people aren't stressors. But when they are THE problem, then I focus attention and energy on trying to change them. I consume vast amounts of energy and get a poor return on my energy investment. If I focus on motivating myself to change, I get a much better return on my energy expenditures.

The discomfort I feel when I am stressed and responding in a negative mode can be instructive. At my best, I want to use the discomfort as a signal that I need to change. Without any of the familiar stressors of my life changing, I want to start responding in healthier ways. It won't be easy. If someone says it's easy, it's an infomercial. It's easier to continue to play the role of the victim. But that's an unempowered role. And it's an illness trap.

But avoiding stress-related illness is only a start. It's a good start. Ultimately, however, the goal is to use the unfairness of life, the stressors on the journey, as a stimulus to growth and emotional maturity.

Reprinted with permission of the author.
Published by Hazelden Information & Educational Services.

Article Source:

Why Normal Isn't Healthy: How to Find Heart, Meaning, Passion & Humor on the Road Most Traveled
by Bowen F. White, M.D.

Why Normal Isn't Healthy by Bowen F. White, M.D. A wise book devoted to the proposition that a whole, healthy, heartfelt life is something that each of us must and can learn -- and earn -- anew. Funny, incisive, and persuasive, this doctor's prescription is as easy to swallow as it is effective: laugh, misbehave, make mistakes, and through it all discover your very own potential for health, healing, and wholeness.

For more info or to order this book. Also available as a Kindle edition.

About The Author

Bowen F. White, M.D. Bowen Faville White is an internationally known speaker, consultant, and clown. Dr. White is an expert in the field of preventive and stress medicine and is widely respected as an organizational physician. He combines humor and a values orientation to get his message of healing to audiences worldwide. He is the author of two audiocassette albums: Dr. White's Complete Stress Management Kit and The Cry of the Heart. Web site: www.bowenwhite.com.

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