Handling Stress, Part IV: How We Interpret Stressors (encore)

by Kassandra Lamb

As we’re launching our new misterio press Facebook readers group this month, I’m re-running my series on stress management. Definitely useful info right now!

Over the last three weeks, we’ve talked about the three components of stress: the stressors (stressful events) in our lives, our body’s response to those stressors and how we interpret stressors cognitively and emotionally.

And we’ve drilled down some on the subject of stressors and our body’s response, and last week, we explored some easy ways to add relaxation breaks to your daily schedule (and why that’s sooo important). If you haven’t read the three previous posts, they are full of helpful tips, so I hope you’ll check them out.

Today, I want to talk about that third factor: how we interpret stressors. What is our own take on the events in our lives? Because, for the most part, a stressor isn’t a stressor until we view it that way (a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a few exceptions, some sneaky stressors).

This is why something can be sooo stressful to one person and someone else thinks they’re nuts for worrying about it. How we interpret stressors is unique to each individual, influenced by personality and past experiences.

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

how we interpret stressors -- fear of flying
(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 drink in the airport bar to brace himself. But once we were on the plane, he wouldn’t drink.

Now, this was back in the days when alcohol on the plane was free (Yes, folks, once upon a time, airlines fed you for free, and they would get you liquored up as well. No extra charge!)

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 trip, I confronted him, 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 graduate 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. (Control is often a big factor in how we interpret stressors.)

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 of his life, who were incompetent. So having someone else in control of his safety made him very nervous.

how we interpret stressors
(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.” (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 relax and enjoy the ride.

Now, let’s talk about job stress.

My husband handles it fairly well. Why? Because he’s an easy-going guy (has to be, to put up with me!) who doesn’t mind having bosses, as long as they’re not an idiot. And if his boss is an idiot, he just figures out a work-around and moves on.

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

Yes, I am cussedly independent! So much so that by the time I completed graduate school, I’d decided that I really needed to be self-employed. I went into private practice as a mental health counselor.

how we interpret stressors
(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 15 years and I was burning out on listening to other people’s descriptions of their stressful lives. I had done a little teaching here and there and really loved the interaction with students. Applying to teach college part-time seemed a good solution. Then, I could cut my counseling hours back so it wouldn’t be so stressful.

I landed an adjunct position at Towson University. I  liked the department chair and the atmosphere in the psychology department, and was told 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, even though I loved everything else about teaching.

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. You are a contractual semester-to-semester 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 in my own mind. I reminded myself that there were roughly fifty colleges within commuting distance of my home (the Baltimore-Washington area at that time). So 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 a school or they didn’t hire me back, I would just take my expertise elsewhere.

It worked! I felt so much better and 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 one of my favorite jobs 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!

how we interpret stressors
(photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash)

Back to my husband and his fear of flying. 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, 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?

Oh, and don’t forget to check out our new Readers’ Group on Facebook and to enter our August Beach Reads contest there. You get two extra entries by joining the group.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, 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 about twice a month, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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