The cause of stress: Is it caused by beliefs or events?

If you listen to different people talk about stress, you will find you can break it down into two opinions on what is the cause of such stress. The first opinion is that the stress is caused by the situations we encounter. It is claimed that people who are stressed are having the wrong life events, and need to make better decisions on where to take their life. I.e. “You’ve got the wrong job, wrong house, wrong partner, wrong friends, kids etc etc.”. This is the philosophy which leads people to believe life is about “finding your path”, and that people can be in need of guidance down their correct path.

For example, say you are driving to work and you take a wrong turn and end up on a road that is completely congested with traffic. As you sit there looking at the car in front blocking your way, you start to get a bit stressed out. You glance at the time and notice that you’re going to be late. Your heart rate goes up, you start breathing faster and getting very frustrated and angry with yourself for taking the wrong turn. You think to yourself “if this event hadn’t happened then I wouldn’t be so stressed. I’m having the wrong event – that’s the cause of my stress”.

In this model, it thought that in order to fix your stress, you need to start having more likeable events. You need to get back on your correct path. But that would never fix someone’s stress, because in life there is always a chance of things unfolding differently to how we desire. That is a fact of life, and denying this fact is not the answer to addressing stress.

The second opinion is that stress has nothing to do with the events we encounter, but is rather triggered by our mental assessment of such events. If two people can face the same event, with one being stressed and the other not so much, it means they are assessing the situation via different beliefs. It is our thoughts and beliefs which are the real cause of our stress, even though events do play a role in how we come to hold certain beliefs. 

Going back to the traffic example, say you then starting thinking about the real cause of your stress. Maybe you thought “hang on, does every person who is in this situation get stressed?” Because if the situation of getting caught in traffic and running late to work directly caused psychological stress then it would be impossible for someone to be in that situation and not feel stressed. Yet surely there are some people who may even laugh at the situation. This is because they are viewing the event though different belief systems.

This is something that I discovered firsthand when full blown panic attacks would come out of nowhere even when I was doing something like watching a favourite TV show while on holiday or eating a favourite meal. I learnt quickly that the difference between misery or happiness has little to do with what situation I am in, but is instead governed completely by what such situations mean to me and what I was thinking. You might say that “well it’s not like that for me”, but I would argue that if you pay attention to what you’re thinking, it absolutely is.

None of this means we shouldn’t try to change a situation we don’t like. Obviously if you are in a relationship where you are being beaten up, it would make sense to try and get out of that relationship.  Or if you are not being treated well at work, by all means find another job. However, it is so important to recognise that simply removing oneself from these events would not deal with the deeper cause of the stress. Hence why people can be suffering huge psychological stress long after any traumatic/unwanted events have passed. Without the first recognising that beliefs, not events, are in need of addressing to fix a person’s stress, it is un-likely  a person would search for and understand the lesson in wisdom they require to learn to feel better. If you want to know what the cause of your stress is  – look at your beliefs.  


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