Updated: Apr 25, 2022
The two gentlemen above are under stress. They are also in a fair amount of pain but if you were to ask, they would tell you that they are enjoying themselves. It's a curious fact that we humans feel offended when stress is imposed on us, but at the same time we welcome stress in the form of challenges and competition.
It is stunning to learn that we Americans, some 5 percent of the worlds population, consume 80 percent of the world's opiates. We hardly suffer more than other parts of the world, so what is going on? The problem is that we have a strange attitude toward stress; we tend to view it as a defeat rather than a challenge. For our purposes let's translate the word stress to discomfort, and look behind the facade of discomfort to see that lies there.
First, stress and discomfort are an inevitable part of the landscape of life. When we feel stressed or uncomfortable it most often means that there is a problem that needs to be defined and eventually solved. Being able to see discomfort as a definable problem rather than an affront is the most constructive thing a person can do to reshape his attitude toward stress. Such a change in attitude is essential to putting oneself on a trajectory where we can shape life in rewarding directions as well and build confidence.
To the extent that I can get my patients to see stress or discomfort as representing a problem that can be defined and solved I will have substantially helped them.
When a person translates a discomfort to a challenge, be it as simple for example as the hassle of dealing with flat tire, to more grave circumstances such as work or family difficulties, or significant medical worries, he begins to exercise and recognize an increasing capacity to problem solve. Over time, by engaging in challenges rather than feeling defeated by them, one will not only be able to problem solve more quickly but one also builds a sense of confidence in one's ability to play the game of life well.
Let's now move in a different direction and consider what I would call toxic stress. Being forced to touch a hot stove is a situation in which there can be no positive outcome. As much as possible we need to keep away from hot stoves. When near a hot stove the struggle should be to find a way to avoid touching it. On the other hand, a broken stove is a constructive challenge. As unpleasant as it may be, a broken stove simply waits for us to gather ourselves, find a plan of attack, and either fix the problem ourselves or find someone else to do so.
All too often, our patients will get hot and broken stoves confused. For example, sticking indefinitely with an intractable partner is touching a hot stove, while dealing with a disappointing relationship and calling a therapist is recognizing and reacting to a broken one.
It is a paradox in life that successfully dealing with stress rings sweet bells in our ears. When we look back on a rough time that we have skillfully negotiated we derive a sense of accomplishment.
As a final inspiration to develop a more positive attitude toward stress consider that the more we effectively wrestle with life, the easier battles become going forward. Building a life is like modeling clay, by grappling with challenges we can shape life in directions that suit us, out of which comes fulfillment.