Today we would like to continue discussing stress, and its causes.

People tend to believe that stress is an entirely external thing.  Stressful events occur.  Your day is full of stress and problems.  Life is about putting out fires, dealing with one crisis after another.

In truth, only a relatively small amount of stress is external in nature — certainly for most people living in peaceful nations, people who are not impoverished, this is true.  For people in peaceful countries, who live lives of comparative prosperity — roof over head, food on table — stress is mainly an internal matter.  

This is not to say external stress does not exist.  But the way humans respond to stressful stimuli is highly variable, highly subjective.  This demonstrates that the root cause is mostly internal.

For example: a high school student gets a “C” grade on a test.  For some students, this is not a big deal.  They passed; all is well.  For a more high-strung student dealing with pressures and expectations, a “C” grade is a disaster.  

So it is with many things.  Some people get very stressed out sitting in traffic.  Others put on music or an audiobook and don’t really mind.  The external stress is the same.  It is the internal state that is different.

What is a deeply traumatic event for one person is often a minor disruption for another.

So what determines this?  Why do some people get incredibly stressed out by things that do not perturb others?

There are many factors at play.  High-strung parents tend to raise high-strung children, it is true.  This is not because the child is born high-strung, but because from an early age the child is being told and encouraged to be frightened and reactive.  The world is presented as a dangerous, menacing place, and the only defense against it is hypervigilance and a quick reaction time.

Even if you have been raised this way, there are many things to do to increase your ability to tolerate and even embrace stressful events.

The first approach is to practice physical relaxation exercises — meditation, yoga, being outdoors, bathing, breathing, and so on — which helps to create a more relaxed space in your consciousness.

The second is to implement the practice of questioning one’s thoughts.  “The Work” of Byron Katie is an extremely effective tool in this regard.  Zen meditative practices are likewise an effective tool.

Basically, this is the practice of questioning one’s stressful thoughts as they arise, before they overwhelm the system and get out of hand.

For example, the high-strung student with the “C” grade would be encouraged to imagine reasons why the “C” grade is not a disaster, why he is in fact completely safe.  The problem is put into correct perspective, shrunk down to size.

The person freaking out in the traffic jam would be encouraged to perceive that the traffic jam is not harming him in any way, and that remaining calm and light-hearted about the situation is the best, most practical way to get through it.

The main thing is to retrain the mind so that it gradually learns that hypervigilance and excessive reactivity is not a useful response to the vast majority of stressful situations.

Many people believe that screaming at problems makes them go away.

All that happens when you scream at a problem is that your heart rate soars, your whole body tenses, and you exhaust yourself physically.  You are also very likely to make the problem worse.

Most people are attracted to someone who remains calm and present in a crisis.  This is because most people instinctively understand that a calm mind best deals with stressful events.

That said, there are many people who get angry at other people for “not getting more upset” about things.

Really, when does “getting upset” help?

When a problem arises, you must take action.  Isn’t it clear that the best action arises out of a stable, calm mind?

Once you really believe this and internalize it, you may gradually find yourself reacting much differently to stress.

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