I’m John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington. I have strong research interests in the genetics of psychiatric disorders, and author of the book Brain Rules for Aging Well.
You might be surprised to know that we in this admittedly specialized scientific community, until somewhat recently, had a really hard time defining what stress was, let alone teaching how to manage it.
Fortunately, things got more in focus with some famous experiments done in the 1960s. Noted psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues found the bad guy wasn’t the fact of stress occurring in your life. Stress occurs to everybody. The experience doing all the damage was your inability to feel in control over the stress.
Control was measured in two dimensions: your inability to control the frequency of the stress, and your inability to control its severity once it arrived at your doorstep. The more out of control you felt in these two dimensions, the more likely you were to experience the type of stress that could severely affect your quality of life. Control was the bad guy. Not the stress.
From this one insight, a number of stress-management suggestions were created.
We’re talking about one of the stress management protocols based on Martin Seligman’s work. It’s predicated on the insight that it is feelings of control over the stressor that is the most important issue. From his work, a three-step protocol emerges.
Create a stress inventory.
This is simply a list of the things that bug you. It really helps to write them down.
Address the control issue
Rate the stresses in your inventory by your ability to feel in control of them. You might rate out-of-control stressors a 10. Lesser ones might only earn a “5” or a “1”. This serves as a filtering system. You can’t address all the negatives in your life, but you can sure identify the bad guys. The bad guys are those stressors for which you feel most out of control.
Work to re-establish control
One of the first steps towards doing this to identify what professionals call stress triggers. These are the initial experiences sending you on the “bullet train to stress-town”. Triggers involve answering questions usually taught in journalism school: who (what people may have been involved), what (the situation that became the source of the stress) where (the location where the stressful experience occurred) and how (as in how it made you feel).
These initial steps aren’t cures. We’ll delve into other – more therapeutic – suggestions later. But you won’t get anywhere in stress management until you know the stuff that’s doing the actual damage. Exerting control – by understanding the initial triggers – is the primary goal of this suggestion. It’s as simple as understanding that you won’t stop stress from occurring until you’ve actually identified the bad guy. The first real step is identifying exactly who the bad guy is.