A therapist friend once remarked to me that while some of us have more alligators to wrestle with in life, and although some of us are better at alligator wrestling than others, there will come a time in everyone’s life when even the best alligator wrestlers are at risk of being eaten alive!
By this she meant that some events are so overwhelmingly stressful that almost all of us, if only in the short term, run a very real risk of being rendered helpless and defeated. Situations capable of creating such stress often include the loss of a loved one, being diagnosed as suffering from a serious illness, suddenly and unexpectedly being made redundant and finding out your partner has been unfaithful.
The element common to each of these very different situations is that control over events is lost. Even in these extreme circumstances, however, it is possible to avoid being ‘eaten alive’ by the alligators of stress provided you are able to develop a positive mental attitude.
In AD 60 the Roman writer Epictetus commented that: “Man is disturbed not by things but the views he takes of them.”
His views were echoed Shakespeare’s Hamlet when he reflects that: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
In a similar vein poet Alexander Pope wrote:” All seems infected th’ infected spy, as all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye.”
Dr George Kelly, an influential American psychologist, believed events were only meaningful to the extent they were seen that way by each individual. He wrote: “Reality does not reveal itself to us directly, but rather it is open to as many alternative ways of construing it as we ourselves invent…all our present perceptions are open to question and reconsideration… even the most obvious occurrences of everyday life might appear utterly transformed if we were inventive enough to construe them differently.”
Events do not, as George Kelly expressed it, carry their meanings “engraved on their backs” but have their significance imposed on them by the way they are interpreted by different individuals.
Writers, poets, philosophers, psychologists and great thinkers down the ages have, therefore, asserted the essential truth of this statement:
Stress arises from an interaction between you and the situation in which you find yourself.
While there are certainly some situations and circumstances that will be stressful for everyone, in the majority of cases it is how we perceive events, rather than those events themselves, that causes stress levels to soar and performance levels to plunge. The following two case histories from my files illustrate that different perceptions of a situation can make a significant difference to the eventual outcomes.
When 33-year-old Nicky was abruptly made redundant from a firm of stockbrokers, her stress levels soared and stayed chronically high. “I felt so deeply ashamed, I cut myself off from all my old friends,” she told me. “I wallowed in depression and self-pity, constantly reminding myself what a failure I was.”
As a result of her negative self-talk Nicky’s confidence plummeted. She came to see herself as a loser. After being unemployed for only three months, Nicky accepted a job with a lower salary and fewer prospects that her previous job, largely because she had convinced herself she was unworthy of anything better.