When Does a Stressor Become a Stressor? (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

I am in editing hell the process of polishing a manuscript, so I thought I’d re-run a post that was a hit a few years ago.

It seemed appropriate to go with a post on stress!  From May, 2013:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the main factors in how stressed we feel is our own interpretation of the events in our lives. With a few exceptions, a stressor isn’t a stressor until we view it that way.

This is why something can be soooo stressful to one person and someone else thinks they’re nuts for worrying about it. The interpretation of a stressor is unique to each individual, influenced by personality and past experiences.

This used to be one of my husband’s biggest stressors:

airplane flying overhead

(photo by Dylan Ashe, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

When we were first married, he was a basketcase whenever we had to fly somewhere. We had to get to the airport extra early, so he could have a couple drinks in the airport bar to brace himself. But once we were on the plane, he wouldn’t drink. This was back in the days when alcohol on the plane was free (Yes, folks, once upon a time, airlines not only fed you for free, they would get you liquored up as well. No extra charge!)

So not only did I think the man was crazy, I was pissed that he was buying overpriced drinks in the airport and then not drinking the free stuff on the plane. One day, I confronted him about this and he explained that he couldn’t drink on the plane because he had to be able to concentrate.

“Concentrate on what?” I asked.

“On willing the plane to stay in the air,” he answered.

At that point, I truly thought I’d married a madman.

I later found out, as a psychology grad student, that this wasn’t an unusual fantasy on the part of folks afraid of flying. It’s their way of taking control of a situation where they feel out of control. (As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, control is often a big factor in stress.)

Fortunately, my husband finally figured out what was going on with his fear of flying. I won’t go into details since it’s not my story to tell. Suffice it to say that he’d had some bad experiences with people being in charge who were quite incompetent. So having someone else in control of his safety made him very nervous.

view from airplane window seat

(photo by Peretz Partensky, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I, on the other hand, am one of those people who will run you over to get to a window seat. Then I squeal, “Look at the cute little cars and houses down there. It looks like a Christmas garden” as the plane is taking off. (My husband wears earplugs on planes; I can’t imagine why.)

My attitude is that since I can’t control whether or not the plane stays in the air, I might as well not worry about it and just relax and enjoy the ride.

Now, let’s talk about job stress. My husband handles it very well. Why? Because he doesn’t mind having bosses. He’s an easy-going guy (has to be to put up with me!) and he’s okay with someone telling him what to do as long as they’re not an idiot. And if his boss is an idiot (he’s had a few of them through the years), he just figures out how to work around the idiocy and moves on.

I, however, have no patience whatsoever for idiot bosses, and it seems like I have had way more than my share of them. Of course, the fact that my definition of an idiot boss is any boss who doesn’t leave me completely alone to do my job without any interference could be part of the problem.

Yes, I am cussedly independent! So much so that by the time I was 30, I’d decided that the only way I could function in the world of work was to be self-employed. I went into private practice as a mental health counselor.

coffee mug with "The Boss"

(photo by ThisIsRobsLife, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

It was the best decision I ever made. For the first time in my life, I totally loved my job! There were plenty of other stressors involved in being self-employed, but they all paled by comparison to how I had felt when I was being micro-managed by others. So I was a happy camper!

Fast forward 13 years and I was starting to burn out on listening to other people’s descriptions of their stressful lives. I had done a little bit of teaching here and there and had really loved the interaction with students. So I decided to apply for part-time teaching positions at the colleges in my area. My goal was to teach half-time and cut my practice back to half-time so it wouldn’t be so stressful.

After papering the Baltimore-Washington area with my resume, I finally got a call from the psychology department at Towson University. I  liked the department chair and the whole atmosphere in the department, and I was reassured that there would be an ongoing need for my services as long as I did a good job.

Imagine my shock when halfway into the first semester I started having anxiety attacks any time I crossed paths with my department chair. Did I mention I liked him? I really did, so why was I so nervous around him? By the end of the semester, I was actually considering quitting teaching, even though I loved everything else about it.

To cut to the chase, I finally figured out that having a boss again, even one I liked, was pushing my control buttons. I wasn’t completely in charge of my own destiny anymore, as I had been for years. Indeed, when you teach college part-time your employment is completely at the whim of your department chair. He or she can choose not to hire you back the following semester and there is absolutely no recourse, because you are a contractual employee. This was the source of my anxiety, and no amount of lecturing myself about how everybody at Towson liked me and said I was doing a good job seemed to help.

After much thought, I hit on a solution, a way to reframe the situation to myself. I reminded myself that there were roughly fifty colleges within commuting distance of my home, and I should think of myself as a self-employed contractor, who was offering my expertise to these schools on a contractual basis. If I didn’t like the set-up at one school or they didn’t hire me back, I would just take my expertise elsewhere.

It worked! I felt so much better. I was able to relax and really enjoy teaching. I taught at Towson for 9 years, until my husband and I both retired and we moved to Florida. It turned out to be my favorite job ever!

Now if you’re thinking, “How silly. All you changed is how you thought about the situation,” you are exactly right. Except about the ‘silly’ part.

That’s the whole point. How we think and feel about a stressor very much affects how much it stresses us!

Back to my husband and his fear of flying for a moment. His fears dissipated dramatically when we started using a certain airline that had two things going for it. One, the crews are trained to be super friendly; the pilot stands at the door and greets the passengers as they board. Two, a friend of ours is a pilot for this particular airline and we know he’s a competent guy.

When my husband felt that those in charge of keeping the plane in the air were real people, friendly and competent like his friend, he was able to relax. Over time, his fear of flying completely disappeared. Today, he prefers flying over driving, whenever possible.

How about you? Any stressors come to mind that might not be so stressful if you were able to shift your interpretation of them?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    May 6, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Great post, Kass! And you’re absolutely right: the way you perceive the situation you’re in has a big impact on the stress level. I’ve found over the years that reminding myself of a similar situation that WENT WELL helps.

    I feel ya about part-time university teaching; I did it as a grad student, and then after I got my doctorate and my kids were little. Even though I saw how lop-sided it was for the adjuncts (low pay, little respect from tenured colleagues, no insurance, no job security), it didn’t bother me at the time, because I told myself that it suited my purposes at the moment. I loved teaching, and literature, and wanted to put my training to good use, and I wanted the part-time flexibility while my kids were young. However, once the kids were older and I’d been doing it for 10+ years, I realized it was time to go, or else I WOULD start to feel exploited and stressed. That’s when I turned to writing full-time. (Not that it’s a non-stress endeavor, for sure!). 😉

    By the way, my mom has some control issues of her own, and has NEVER flown. We’ve argued over the years (before 9/11) that flying was safer than driving, but she’d say “Yeah, maybe, but when you have a fender-bender in the air, where do you pull over?” LOL! 😀


    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 6, 2013 at 10:48 am

      LOL Your mom has a point. Accidents in the air are rare but they tend to be all-or-nothing. I always pray that it will happen so fast the pilot won’t be able to tell us and we’ll die quick and ignorant.

      That’s a great strategy, to remind yourself of similar situations that you handled just fine… calming and might give you some good strategies to handle the current problem.

  • Reply
    Marcy Kennedy
    May 6, 2013 at 11:54 am

    I’m very much like you in this. I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life. I did a brief time where even though I was technically a self-employed contractor, they expected me to abide by some ridiculous restrictions. I won’t go into details, but I ended up so stressed that I dreaded getting out of bed in the morning. Looking back, it really was because I don’t do well working for a “boss” I didn’t respect. I wish I’d read this article back then. I might have been able to change my mindset and make it less frustrating for me.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 6, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      Hey, Marcy, it does sound like we are kindred spirits! 🙂 I’ve definitely had a few of those dreading-getting-out-of-bed jobs. Sometimes I could reframe my attitude, sometimes not.

      I am always so amazed that my husband can just smile and nod when a boss is saying or doing something dumb, and then he quietly finds a work around.

  • Reply
    Nancy Levine
    May 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    I am a worrier, so I have many stressors. Job stress is one,,,I lost my “dream job” working for my favorite newspaper after 15 years when a new owner took over. Then I got a job in publishing, which was my favorite job, and lost it when the company closed down. My job now is stressful because there are lay offs since it is a seasonal job. But I need the day job until my writing career takes off and it hasn’tl…yet.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 6, 2013 at 4:29 pm

      Oh my, Nancy, I feel for you, to have had two great jobs, and then lost them through no fault of your own.

      Being a worrier is indeed very stressful and there’s no easy answer (I should probably do a whole post on worrying). I know what helps me when I’m worried is to imagine the worst scenario and then decide on a course of action to deal with it. Often then I can put aside worrying until I see what really happens.

      Hope your writing career takes off soon. That’s perhaps a different set of worries but also more rewarding!

      • Reply
        Nancy Levine
        May 6, 2013 at 6:36 pm

        Thanks so much, Kassandra. I hope my writing career takes off soon, too. I look forward to those worries. I have lots of good memories from both jobs. The one I have now is good, too, and is a cross between the other two jobs.

  • Reply
    Catie Rhodes
    May 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    You have a great point. It took me most of my forty years to learn what you’re talking about here. The steepest learning curve was in learning to isolate what bothers me about a situation.

    Sometimes I still have to ask myself a LOT of questions to figure that one out. However, the effort has allowed me to pay more attention to everything in life–which helps with the writing.

    Great article. 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 6, 2013 at 7:59 pm

      Oh, yes, that is the toughest part. Figuring out exactly what is bothering us about a situation (that’s making it so stressful) and then figuring out WHY it’s bothering us, so we know what to reframe.

      I’ve had a lot of long, long chats with myself through the years! 😀

  • Reply
    Beverly Diehl
    May 7, 2013 at 12:17 am

    It is totally about how you perceive and “sell” the situation to yourself. Moving along 5 mph in your car – are you the Grand Marshall in a parade, or late to work in bumper to bumper traffic?

    I once flew with a mother, father, and their identical 5 year old- twins. Dad and Twin A were relaxed and on the other side of the aisle; she was excited. Twin B (and Mom) were major freaked out, crying, she wanted the shade closed so she didn’t have to see out, she had asked the flight attendants when she boarded the plane to make the plane go really slow, okay? Twin B was seated between me and Mom, and gradually, I coaxed her to take longer and longer peeks out the window at the other planes waiting to taxi out, and talked to her about it until in the end she was LOVING being on a plane; sat in my lap and looked down at the little houses and car until she had to strap in again.

    If only I could adjust my own attitude about spiders!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 7, 2013 at 1:35 am

      *snort* Not much of a spider fan myself, Beverly!

      Sounds like you prevented a budding phobia there. Hope Mom was listening in. 🙂

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    May 8, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Weirdly, the WSJ has an article on turning bad stress into good today. The topic must be in the atmosphere!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      May 8, 2013 at 8:32 pm

      I think it’s a topic that’s always in the air, Kirsten. Cuz we human beings are always stressed! 🙂

  • Reply
    Mae Clair
    September 20, 2016 at 8:56 am

    A great post! Insightful AND entertaining. I’m a bit like your husband (was) in that I stress over situations that are out of my control. I think most people freak a bit when they have control taken away from them and flying is a good example. I used to love to fly but I’ve liked it less and less over the years. Although that could have a lot to do with airport lines and such!!

    Right now I’m stressing over finishing a WIP. Time keeps slipping away from me so I guess I need to start exerting some control there!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      September 20, 2016 at 12:12 pm

      So glad you enjoyed it, Mae. Control is definitely a big, big factor with a lot of stressors.

      And then sometimes when we theoretically have control, we don’t use it. Like with WIPs. I have 60 pages to go in this edit and I’m procrastinating all over the place.

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