Controlling Stress Before It Controls You

(c) 2012 Carol James, Founder of

Screaming kids, spousal misunderstandings, blaring alarm clocks, approaching deadlines, unexpected interruptions, creativity blocks, endless emails or phone messages to return, bad news, bills to be paid, traffic jams, health problems, computer crashes, household chores, impending taxes, demanding bosses . . . stress, stress and more stress. But did you ever stop to think about what leads to stress?

The path to stress is easy to see by observing the natural characteristics of human beings as they select, process and respond to experiences. If we could slow down our thought-reaction process, we could see the individual characteristics of humanness as they play out. For example, here’s an example to illustrate how stress happens and how it affects you:
  1. You notice that your husband (or wife, mate or child) has not come home yet, even though he said he’d be home an hour ago (your point of focus).
  2. You decide that something must be terribly wrong. Perhaps you imagine that he’s been in a horrible car accident or, even worse, a victim of car-jacking (the meaning you make about why he is late).
  3. After all, the news is filled with all the bad things that can happen to unsuspecting people (the evidence to support your conclusion).
  4. Because of the meaning you have made about why he is late, an emotional response is triggered and you feel anxious, worried or even panicky. Your body chemistry has changed, producing all the classic symptoms of stress: Your muscles tense, your head begins to ache, nausea attacks your stomach, your pulse quickens, etc. (your biochemical response).
  5. The tension has affected your state of mind as you become negative and pessimistic, expecting the worst (your state of mind).
  6. Now because your emotional reaction is fear, your level of personal effectiveness is, in turn, diminished. You no longer think with a level head, perhaps even feeling out of control. You become easily distracted from activities, struggling to focus your thoughts or actions in a constructive way (diminished personal effectiveness).
  7. Simple functions seem difficult or burdensome, often turning into messes, like the carton of milk you just spilled on the floor. Frustrated, you scream at the kids to shut up and clean up the mess (the outcome as a result of your stressed-out state).

Of course, the scenario offered above is a negative response to stimuli. It could have gone an entirely different way if the woman had decided that her husband’s lateness had simply meant something else, perhaps that he got caught in traffic or decided to stop for a few groceries.

This illustration can be applied to any situation you experience – getting cut off in traffic, having your work critiqued, being assigned more work than you think you can handle, having a disagreement, etc. Your emotional and physical response and your personal effectiveness depend on the meaning you give to the experience.

So before you get all stress-out over the situation, take a moment to stop and think about whether your interpretation of the situation is accurate. A great question to check your interpretation is, "How can I know for sure?"

The question applied to the above scenario would be, "How can I know for sure that he has been in an accident?" The obvious answer is, you can’t know for sure. So why let yourself get stressed-out over an imaginary fear? After all, it’s your thoughts that lead to stress, and you can control those.

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