You might feel that your stress is a direct consequence of the stressful event or trigger. You may think that “the situation made me stressed.” And that would be entirely understandable.
However, the reality is, slow lines, difficult relatives, and loud music don’t in themselves have the power to make you automatically feel stressed. For a situation or circumstance to trigger stress, you have to perceive that situation as stressful. It’s your thoughts that are producing your stress.
For each of the preceding examples, we would feel much less stress (and maybe no stress) if our thinking had somehow changed — if circumstances had changed our thinking and we looked at these stressors differently. Consider how your stress level might be very different:
You’re still in that slow-moving supermarket line, but you pick up a magazine with a story that intrigues you. Now you’re pleased that the line is moving so slowly because you want to finish that article on celebrity cellulite.
You remember that the upcoming test at school only counts for a small part of your final grade.
You turn around in the elevator and realize that the person behind you is blind and using a cane.
You’re reliably informed that your Aunt Agnes has rewritten her will and made you the sole beneficiary to her rather large estate. “You’re staying only one week, Aunt Agnes!?”
Noisy neighbor? Who cares? Just that morning, you signed the papers on a wonderful new place across town. Half the cost, twice the size. Knock yourself out, buddy!
Your thinking in each of these scenarios had changed because circumstances or new information changed your perceptions of each potential stressor. Of course, life only rarely rewards you with these bits of good fortune.
The point is, you have the potential to think about a stressor differently if you can find a way of looking at that stressor differently. The same trigger viewed with a different mindset can result in different feelings. In my revised scenarios, the altered circumstances changed your thinking.
But what if you could learn to change your thoughts — your perceptions and expectations — on your own, independent of the circumstances? You would feel differently. You would experience less stress. Fortunately, this is a skill you can master. Your first step is understanding the difference between your thoughts and your feelings.