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.

Contrast her reaction to that of John, aged 32, who also lost his job at a Merchant Bank where he had worked for ten years. “At first I was devastated. The whole ritual of clearing my desk and emptying all my office possessions into a black plastic bag and being escorted from the premises by security was horrible. I felt deeply ashamed and humiliated.”

His black mood of helpless despair only lasted a few days before he was able to see his situation in a more positive light. To regard what had happened as an opportunity instead of a threat to everything he wanted and had planned for himself in life.

John was helped in bringing about these changes by using the Relaxing and Focused Breath procedures from the Bo-Tau training programme together with positive ‘Sensualisations’ during which he envisaged and worked through various courses of action in his imagination.

Because of his positive perspective, ability to remain calm by managing the physiological symptoms of stress and stay focused on the challenge, John’s stress quickly returned to a level at which is performance was optimal. Calmly and optimistically he reviewed all his options and developed a realistic plan to recover control over events.

“I decided to become an independent financial consultant. Although the going was tough I never lost faith in myself.” Within twelve months he had built a considerable reputation and a list of Blue Chip clients, among which was the very bank that had made him redundant the previous year.

For Nicky excessive stress, fuelled by self-blame and negative thinking, swiftly spiralled into chronic distress and catastrophic consequences. For John the stress of redundancy became a spur to make positive changes in his life. So the next time you are faced with more alligators than you think you can cope with don’t despair. Use the key word S.T.O.P to bring the situation quickly back under control.

S – Step back from the situation. Don’t make any sudden decisions unless absolutely necessary.

T – Take a while to put events into perspective. Go on holiday or at least spend a day or so away from your normal routines. During this time review your…

O – Options. It sometimes helps to make a list of your strengths and weaknesses, the things you do well and those further outside your comfort zone. Use the Bo-Tau Relaxing and Focused Breath procedures while doing so and explore different possible scenarios using Sensualisations.

P – Persist in whatever course of action you finally decide to pursue.

Many people fail to defeat their own personal stress alligators because they give up too soon. Don’t allow yourself to become one of them!