It’s Not about Stress
Stress and its negative effects on the mind and body have been the subject of many books, articles, and blog posts. A Google search turns up well over half a billion entries on the topic. All seem to agree that stress must be reduced for any hope of health and happiness. Not surprisingly, a cottage industry of stress-reduction techniques, devices, and other products has emerged.
The most popular suggestions for reducing stress involve various forms of relaxation and meditation. These help some of the people some of the time but not for very long. Even when you can take time out from stressful encounters to relax or meditate, you’ve done little to mitigate the invisible undercurrent of stress.
We pay attention to the waves on what seems like an ocean of stress. But it’s the undercurrent drives them. As long as the undercurrent persists, stress, like waves on the ocean, recurs relentlessly.
Anxiety is a powerful undercurrent directing waves of stress. (More precisely, it’s our habits of coping with anxiety.) Anxiety is a feeling that something bad will happen – you’ll fail or lose or get:
Stress without the threat of anxiety is typically experienced as excitement.
The way most people cope with anxiety amplifies the worst effects of stress. The hidden culprits are blame, denial, avoidance. Denial and avoidance prolong stress. Blame intensifies it. Worse, blame turns common anxiety into health-destroying resentment.
The Deadly Stress Formula: Anxiety + Blame = Resentment
Resentment occurs when the possible failure, loss, or rejection that anxiety bodes is perceived as someone’s fault. Justified or not, resentment keeps us focused on damage and injury, rather than solutions and healing. The hungry shark hidden in waves of stress is resentment.
Chances are, the emotional state you observe most often in the course of an ordinary day is some form of low-grade resentment. It typically looks like impatience, agitation, annoyance, irritability, sarcasm, frustration, or feigned superiority.
Resentment magnifies stress by breaking down concentration and draining off energy. The report you need to write takes longer, consumes more energy, and has more errors, if…
“It should have been assigned to someone else!”
You might have been intrigued by the project, if…
“The production quotas were fair!”
You might enjoy taking your kids to the soccer game, if…
“Your spouse didn’t insist that you do!”
Traffic jams are horribly stressful when you focus on what you cannot control. Resentful people focus on how the highway should have been designed. They rail at traffic lights for not being properly synchronized. They become highly critical of everyone else’s driving.
Here’s a simple test to determine whether your stress is magnified by resentment. Write down the five things that cause the most stress in your life.
Rate your ability to cope with each item on a scale of 1-5, where 1 equals no ability to cope and 5 equals maximum ability to cope.
Now take a moment to imagine that all traces of resentment have been removed from your stress:
There’s no unfairness or injustice
All involved pull their own weight
All live up to their responsibilities
You have all the help, understanding, appreciation, consideration, praise, reward, respect, and affection you desire.
Give yourself a few moments to enjoy an imaginary world without resentment. Then reevaluate your stress list. Use the 1-5 scale to rate your average ability to cope with each item on your now resentment-free stress list. You should notice it go down at least a notch or two.
When there’s no resentment, we tend to focus on:
Connecting to others
Appreciating more in life
Protecting those we love.
All of the above lower stress and, not incidentally, bring about more fairness in the world over the long run.
Warning: Change in Other People’s Behavior Won’t Alter Your Resentment
Once resentment becomes part of an automatic defense system, it makes us look for things to resent. It makes us crave its small dose of adrenalin for temporary energy and confidence. It helps us feel self-righteous, which seems better than self-doubt. Once resentment becomes part of your automatic defense system, it has to be resolved within you.
You cannot simply “let go” of past resentments. You must crowd them out by forming habits of the very opposites of resentment: improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting. That’s right, improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting must become habits. A conditioned defense system must be reconditioned.