Think about all the stressful things we encounter in one day, and then realize that the only way they become stressors is because that is how we perceive them. The way we look at the world around us determines how we react to it, or how we don’t react.
Everyone’s life is full of stressors or stress triggers. These are the things in life that are negative, and result in a residual bad mood. Stressors can be things like traffic on the way to work, voicemails from your child’s school, struggling to pay your bills, relationship problems, the list is endless. These events build and build until they wear you down. Chronic stress has been linked to health problems, cardiovascular disease, cognitive problems (e.g., memory, attention), mood dysregulation, and feelings of being overwhelmed. However, stress is primarily the direct result of how you perceive things.
Obviously there are examples of where stress is stressful regardless of how you see it. When you are fighting for basic needs (e.g., shelter, food) having a positive outlook on life is possible but won’t feed your aching tummy. But for the majority of problems that we face each day, having the ability to step back and view our stressors from a third party perspective can make all the difference in the world.
For example, your spouse of 10 years just confessed that they have been having an affair and have decided to leave you. The news is devastating, it takes the breath from your body and you feel like it’s the end of the world. You are hurt, betrayed and the pain is unbearable. Now turn the tables. Your best friend calls to tell you their spouse just confessed to having had an affair. They tell you they are destroyed and will never find hope again. As a good friend you can see the bigger picture. A cheating spouse wasn’t worth keeping to begin with, you see this as a positive release of dead weight and it’s a chance for your friend to start anew. You know they will bounce back with time, and with the support of friends and family they will quickly begin living a fulfilling life.
This scenario is obviously not a common occurrence, but the same practice can be used for daily stressors. Reacting to traffic as if you were fighting a lion for your life happens all the time. Every morning commuters get road rage and stress their bodies. I bet everyone reading this can recall a time while driving where they got so angry or frustrated at another drive or at the traffic. At the time it seems reasonable and justified because that’s how we see it. However, when you spin the situation it seems useless. Two weeks ago I was watching the news and a story detailed how a road rage encounter on a Pennsylvania highway resulted in one man shot to death in his car and a murderer on the run. My perspective on this story is, “no matter what could have possibly happened while driving on a highway, it could not have been worth the two lives that are now destroyed”.
When you take a normal situation and place yourself in another pair of shoes, you begin to see how perspective plays such an important role in controlling your stress. Perspective can amplify your stress levels or bottom them out where you can see how silly things really are. When someone at the supermarket snaps at you, your reaction is to fight back. But stop a minute and think they probably had a bad day, maybe they had a fender bender this morning or their boss just told them they had to work this weekend. The possibilities are endless.
Changing your perspective of things is not something that most people can do overnight but it is not impossible. Changes can start by simply replaying events, after the fact and trying to think about what the other person might be feeling. You can think about it seriously or even make yourself laugh when you imagine that angry person feels that way because their socks are too tight. Taking a minute to put yourself into someone’s shoes will eventually become like second nature to you. With time, you will be able to place yourself there before you even react, you can simply observe the situation as it unfolds in front of you without having a stressful reaction to it.
“Distance not only gives nostalgia, but perspective and maybe objectivity” – Robert Morgan