Carried Over the Threshold

One of the fundamental principles of the Challenge of Change Resilience Training is that stress is not caused by people or situations but is the self-inflicted habit of ruminating about emotional upset.  Attributing your stress to something or someone else must inevitably make you a helpless victim of circumstance.  In fact, you have a choice whether or not you become stressed, but the view that stress is avoidable probably provokes more initial opposition from training participants than any of our key messages: “You should try working for my boss for a day!”; “You have no idea how stressful my job is!” 

The opposition is understandable, because the idea that stress is a choice takes away the opportunity for blame.  It can take a while for people to see how liberating it is to take control of how you respond and not just react habitually like an automaton.  What is sometimes missed, though, is the caveat that’s explicit in the programme: we draw a clear distinction between the day-to-day stress that is the focus of the training on the one hand, and post-traumatic stress on the other.  What separates them is a threshold. 

We use thresholds elsewhere in the programme, for example to define perfectionism.  Wanting to do things as well as possible is useful and positive, but there are constraints on how long you can spend dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ before efficiency is compromised.  Perfectionists, driven by the misguided idea that everything we do should be perfect, will go on and on beyond the threshold of added value, where all the additional time they spend adds nothing to the outcome.

In the same way, stress can be ranged along a continuum from day-to-day stress to post-traumatic stress, and the difference between them is primarily the intensity of experienced emotion.  Traumatic events are those where the emotional reaction overwhelms your ability to maintain perspective, and you may be pushed over the threshold and end up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Trauma is best illustrated by life-threatening catastrophes like fires or earthquakes, and a defining feature of the PTSD that may follow is that it is diagnosable – sufferers display symptoms like anxiety, flash-backs and longer-term physical and emotional problems.

Clearly, no matter how demanding your boss or your job might be, they do not fall into the trauma category.  We make another important distinction, between pressure and stress, and job demands are merely pressure: a demand to perform.  This is not to suggest that you should accept a bullying boss or a job where the demands are unrealistic – if you find yourself in those situations it might be time to brush up your CV and start looking elsewhere for work – but these pressures will only become stress if you continue to ruminate about the emotional upset that they provoke.  All that events do is to offer you something to ruminate about if you choose to do so.

A further caveat is that the distinction between day-to-day and post-traumatic stress is not black and white.  Where it occurs along the continuum will vary from person to person, and may vary for the same person across seemingly similar situations.  Some people are just more emotionally labile than others, and their response is correspondingly more intense.  Fortunately they tend to be a minority – the research programme was initiated in part by the puzzle of why only a relatively small number of people are diagnosed with PTSD, even after life-threatening disasters.  An individual’s response might also vary depending on how tired they are, or whether they’re dealing at the time with other emotionally demanding situations.  What is clear, though, is that in the aftermath of disasters, a proportion of people will suffer from PTSD, and what they need is help and compassion.  We describe stress as a choice, but that applies only to day-to-day stress.  If for whatever reason you’re pushed over the threshold, the element of choice is compromised.

The distinction between day-to-day and post-traumatic stress doesn’t in any way negate our definition of stress as ruminating about emotional upset, and a fundamental feature of PTSD is debilitating rumination.  The Challenge of Change Resilience Training provides strategies for reducing ruminative habits which we know have proved extremely effective, but once the port-traumatic process has been set in train it would be difficult to change simply by attending a session along with your colleagues.  Some participants who have attended the training and were subsequently exposed to extreme trauma have reported that the strategies helped them to adapt significantly much more quickly than they might otherwise have done, but for many others what’s needed when the threshold is crossed is informed, and often quite prolonged, one-to-one help.