Stress as Rumination

How often do we hear someone say they’re stressed because they’re moving house?  They say they must be stressed, because moving house is ‘way up there on the list’.  The list is one of the life-event scales – lists of things that might happen in your life, and you’re asked to tick all of the ones that have actually happened to you in the past 6 months.  The more ticks there are the more ‘stress’ you’re supposed to be under.

If all these things were stressful there’d be no such thing as stress management - after all, how many issues you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis can just be ignored?  You have to deal with them, and if they’re inherently stressful then stress becomes unavoidable.  And isn’t it also true that for every person who says that moving house stresses them, there’ll be another who is excited by it and looking forward to it?

We equally unthinkingly say that a bit of stress is good for you.  Pressure may be useful, but it should be called what it is: pressure, not stress.  There isn’t ‘useful stress’.  Pressure is demand, and can be hugely motivating, but all that stress offers is misery.  Of course, this depends how you define stress.  The old-fashioned flat-earth idea saw stress as lots of events, but we all know resilient people who can cope with much more than others can.  In our own experience, we’ve had days when work has gone like a dream, but the next day feels like wading through treacle.  The job hasn’t changed, what’s changed is our minds.  Stress is all in the mind, which is just as well – you can’t change everything in the world, but you can certainly change you perception of it.

The Challenge of Change defines stress as rumination – the tendency to go on dwelling on things after they’ve happened.  This is not reflecting on what went wrong in an emotionally objective way, it is just endlessly thinking ‘what if’ and ‘if only’.  As Mark Twain said, ‘some of the worst things in my life never happened’.  All that events do is to offer you something to ruminate about, but whether you do so or not is a choice.  Giving people the knowledge to make that choice is what real empowerment is about.