This article explores an understanding of dealing with stress and anxiety informed by concepts from cognitive psychology, specifically the seminal theory of stress of Lazarus and Folkman (1984). From this perspective stress is simply understood as our cognitive, emotional and behavioral response to events we perceive as threatening to our well-being. Similarly anxiety is a process initiated by our perceptions of an event as threatening and thereby generating an emotionally based experience of discomfort, did-ease and distress associated with specific bodily and behavioral responses. A state of anxiety is associated with feelings of apprehension, doubt and fear in relation to an event. Both the experiences of stress and anxiety are underpinned by our perception or appraisal of reality. Therefore the underpinning tool to dealing with stress and anxiety is to begin to become aware of and manage this process of perception and the thoughts, feelings and behaviors (including coping attempts) that it generates.
Stress and anxiety emerge out of the interaction between an event or “stressor” and our own physical, cognitive and emotional attempts at dealing with the event. The perception of a situation’s relevance to personal wellbeing will lead to an appraisal of the event which will in turn generate emotional and physical responses associated with stress and anxiety or alternatively with a more resilient coping response. For instance you have a major deadline coming up at work (the event) and you are seriously behind. You consider yourself to be a responsible and diligent person and appraise this approaching deadline as highly threatening to your wellbeing. As the due date approaches you start to feel more and more threatened by the deadline. You start to beat yourself up, generating thoughts such as: ”I can’t succeed”, “I am so irresponsible”, “How could I have let myself get into this mess?” You feel tremendous disappointment in yourself and feel discouraged, anxious and depressed (your feelings). You find it increasingly difficult to concentrate at work and struggle to fall asleep at night (your physical response). You attempt to “cope” by avoiding your manager and colleagues and surfing the net (coping attempts). Two days before the deadline and you are ready to crack – you are struggling to sleep, you overeat and are irritable and snappy. You are dealing with the situation in a way that generates stress and anxiety!
Not everyone faced with this event would have interpreted and responded to it in the same way. For instance you might have appraised or perceived this deadline as a challenge and may have felt more able to rise to the challenge of the deadline, had thoughts such as “This is really challenging but I can manage”, “I am really capable”, “I can do this, with a little help”. This in turn may have generated feelings such as anticipation and optimism. You may have physically responded by making sure you get enough sleep and eating healthy, and coped by working a few extra hours and delegating some responsibilities to other colleagues. You are dealing with the situation in a manner that generates well being and productive coping.
Essentially this way of understanding stress and anxiety proposes that your thoughts about the event matter more than the event itself! So seemingly positive events such as to planning a wedding or going on an overseas trip may be seen as an exciting opportunity by one individual and extremely stressful by another individual who perceives the event as highly threatening. It is the interpretation of the event that really matters and shapes how you cope with it and determines the degree of stress and anxiety you experience. Your appraisal of events and the thoughts generated by these perceptions are the most important factor that impact on your ability to deal with the situation – your physical and emotional response that shape whether challenging situations are invigorating or harmful for you. So if you can start to get a handle on the perceptions and thoughts generated by events you can transform previously stressful and anxiety provoking experiences into manageable situations that you can effectively master! This is a profoundly liberating and empowering perspective as you are not a victim of the situation or circumstances but rather you can actively shape your experience through gaining increased awareness and control of your perceptions and thoughts. So dealing with stress and anxiety becomes an exercise in managing your thoughts.
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise. Take a look at her LinkedIn profile