How We Create Our Own Stress

Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve written before about how kids can be amazing teachers if we just let them, and this week yet another example of that came to pass.

It was later in the evening, and I was in the process of giving my son a bath. It had been a trying day at work, so my mind was drained and it was all I could do to keep up with the boundless energy of a four year old. My son is an extremely perceptive little guy, so he noticed that his dad was a little less talkative than usual.

Him: Daddy, why are you so tired?

Me: Sorry buddy, Daddy had a really crazy day at work.

Him: Why did you make your day at work so crazy Daddy?

Me: No buddy. Daddy didn’t.. pause

I was about to say “No buddy. Daddy didn’t make his day at work crazy, all the <insert various mean but yet appropriate for kid words here> at Daddy’s work made his day crazy.” But his question made me think: did the people at work really make my day crazy, or was it how I chose to react that caused the problem?

If you think about it, we’ve all probably been guilty of this classic mistaken attribution of our bad days at some point. “That guy really ruined my day!” “If only my flight were on time, I wouldn’t be so stressed out!” “That damn kid, if he would just leave me alone I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood!”

All of these responses, while completely natural, are based on a fundamentally flawed idea – that the things that happen to us determine our own response.

The jerk at the coffee shop this morning didn’t make you angry, you got upset because you felt he was disrespecting you and the other customers. The flight being late didn’t stress you out, your worry about not being on time did. And the kid demanding your attention? Well, perhaps you hold a belief that he should be more independent at his age, or that you deserve some quiet time to yourself, and his threatening that makes you uncomfortable.

Mind you, I don’t want to imply that merely being aware of this fact will allow you to flow through life with the calmness of a Vulcan. Nor am I saying that one should feel bad about reacting to life’s little challenges in a, well, human way. Being aware of our thoughts and how they affect us is not the same as the ability to turn those thoughts in a more productive direction. But awareness is certainly key, and a valuable skill to have in your emotional toolkit.

The next time you feel yourself becoming angry, or your blood pressure rising, take a moment to consider what is going through your mind, and how it is affecting your emotions. Consider carefully if you are creating your own stress, and if so, if it is really a productive use of your energy. We have so many things to do and so little time to do them; why add more unnecessary tension?

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