A Philosophy of Stress Management

Choosing What to Think

It seems unlikely that the purpose of life is to fill ourselves with stress. Stress management starts with sitting quietly and reflecting on the positive and satisfying aspects of life as a way of letting go our stressful thoughts. In quiet, reflective sessions, listening to the recorded relaxation tracks, parents and children are invited to look beyond themselves and see the pathway to a low stress life.

Many people might say that diet, exercise, work-life balance and so on are important components in our lives and may be related to the amount of stress we experience. However, these programmes are aimed as directly as possible at the psychology of stress. With that in mind, muscle relaxation, is important and part of this programme, but the psychology literature on stress tells us that stress management requires ‘perception change’ in order to be effective.

Perception change is important in the alleviation or management of stress: “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2). That is, by our thoughts, we think a life event into having a positive or negative effect on us. We have a choice to re-think and change any negative thought into a positive thought; ‘choosing what to think’.

Cognitive Behavioural Approach

The model for perception change used in this programme is based on the cognitive behavioural approach (CBA) which has developed from the original works of Aaron Beck (1961), Albert Ellis (1955) and Donald Meichenbaum (1974).

Before CBA the traditional approach to helping people who became anxious, dejected or disturbed by events in their lives, had involved a ‘talking cure’ traditionally based on psychoanalysis, although there were alternatives such as client centred therapy (Rogers, 1951). This involved a series of meetings with a counsellor or psychological therapist of some kind. The meetings may continue over a period of weeks, months or years in some cases. There is often an underlying assumption that it helps to talk about your feelings as form of catharsis. There is said to be the additional benefit of reviewing your life, recalling the past and developing insights into the way in which previous events continue to effect our emotions and beliefs in the present.

As the design of psychological therapies evolved during the 1960s the emphasis changed from thoughts and feelings to behaviour. It was asserted that the goal of therapy should be behaviour change. A therapist could help the client to modify their unwanted behaviour without going into detail about how that behaviour originated in the first place. This approach was known as behaviour therapy and, as originally practised, it dealt with the client’s behaviour only, not their inner world of thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Behaviour therapy methods were later extended to include ‘thinking behaviour’ (called cognitive behaviour). The term cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) was originally coined to encompass this approach, later referred to in its broader use as CBA (cognitive behaviour approach).

In Figure 1 it can be seen from a CBA perspective how thoughts, feelings, bodily responses and behaviour are interlinked. Changing any one of these variable affects all of the others. Whilst the person is in one dimension experiencing these changes, they are simultaneously in a second dimension relating to the external world.

Figure 1
Figure 1

In everyday life it may not be possible to say which comes first, thoughts, feelings, bodily responses or behaviour and which is triggered next. It seems unlikely that all processes, in all directions in Figure 1 are happening simultaneously. It may help to simplify and take a snapshot, starting with top centre and proceeding clockwise. That allows us to create a diagram of the fight or flight sequence of reactions within the same CBA model.

Figure 2 illustrates the sequence starting, say with a Stone Age person seeing a dangerous animal, the feelings aroused, the body preparing itself for intense physical activity, then action.

Figure 2
Figure 2

We can now move on to look at how the fight or flight reactions can operate in the present day and lead to stress. In everyday life we may seldom face actual danger but we experience ‘mild danger’ in the form of irritants, disturbances and a range of negative events. The example from Chapter Three of a near miss in a traffic situation illustrates that, whether we experience a negative event or just think about it, the effect upon us is similar. Repeatedly having a negative experience or repeatedly thinking of such an event leads to negative feelings and bodily responses which are prolonged.

Moving on to Figure 3; there are so many things to worry about in life. When you go to bed at night but keep thinking about something you are anxious about, your body responds by going into fight or flight mode. That not a state of mind which is conducive to sleeping. In our waking hours we can be thinking moderately anxious thoughts frequently throughout the day and our bodies react with a range of stress responses. When we persist in thinking anxious thoughts we are putting our bodies repeatedly into fight or flight mode. It seems unlikely that Stone Age people would face a sabre tooth tiger or woolly mammoth on countless occasions every day. Our bodies are not designed to be continuously held in this flight or fight state. We may respond well to a moderate amount of pressure, but we need to distinguish between pressure and stress. Prolonged pressure takes us beyond our capacity to cope. When this happens we are overloaded and that means we are under stress. Pressure may be motivating and, therefore, considered beneficial but stress, by definition, is not beneficial.

Figure 3
Figure 3

When we find ourselves thinking about a negative experience we can take a break from our negative thoughts and choose to think of something pleasant instead. Looking at the CBA diagram in another way allows us to turn it into a ‘virtuous circle’.

Now we see from Figure 4 that the pleasant thought which we have chosen reduces the intensity and frequency of our anxiety feelings, which in turn relaxes our muscles, lowers our heart rate and so on. As a consequence we begin to recover our mental and physical energy, understand problems and perceive solutions more clearly, become less stressed and reduce our stressed behaviour.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Figure 4 differs from 2 and 3 in that Figure 4 has an arrow at top left to form a complete circle, emphasising that we need to keep returning to choosing what to think. We get better with practice at stress reduction.

The Yerkes-Dodson graph, as shown in Figure 5, is included here for information because it is frequently mentioned in stress presentations. However it has its weaknesses when used as a model of stress. The graph, as frequently shown, is not quite true to the original Yerkes-Dodson Law, when you see the arousal (horizontal) axis re-labelled as ‘too little stress – too much stress’.

Figure 5
Figure 5

Yerkes-Dodson refers to only one aspect of stress-related behaviour and it does not allow for causes of stress, perceptions, coping mechanisms and so on. This is of limited usefulness in a stress management session. This graph may serve as a warning to examination candidates that they are unlikely to be successful if they remain in a high state of anxiety during their examinations. However this illustration would not explain the cause of their stress, or provide a means of stress reduction; it could possibly lead to a further increase in anxiety.

The above diagrams 1 – 4 hopefully offer a more comprehensive model of how stress is alleviated or managed.