The term ‘stress’, when applied to humans, was coined in the 1930s by Hans Selye, who, in a short article for Nature, divided it into two types: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress).
Linked to our natural ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, stress is housed in the part of the brain called the Amygdala. It’s a type of survival mechanism, which stems back to our early origins when stress could literally save our lives: for example, when being chased by a woolly mammoth. Sometimes, it still does. Consider walking into a road, and not seeing an oncoming bus. It’s that same stress trigger that prompts us to massively up our speed and hurl ourselves out of the way.
But the fact is that modern life is generally not throwing life-threatening situations in our way – at least not in the same way it did for early caveman. But our stress mechanism often gives us the same, palm-sweating, blood pumping reactions to contemporary triggers; an argument with our spouse, perhaps, or the human resources department at work changing our working conditions.
So, we use the following that form the five pillars of stress:
Pressure: Putting ourselves under too much pressure
Approval: Seeking approval or trying to prove ourselves
Priority: Not making ourselves a priority in our own lives
Control: Relinquishing control or at times needing to take control
Trust: Not trusting ourselves or others
We will now look at these five pillars in more detail. By recognising what they are, we can learn to deal with them to help ourselves and others. After each section, I will suggest questions you can ask yourself to work out whether this is one of your main ‘pillars’.
Of all the pillars of stress, this is probably the one to which most people can relate. But it can also be the hardest to deal with – and the reason for that is it’s highly likely we may all be a little addicted to the pressure we put on ourselves! We may feel, on some level, that without pressure we don’t perform as well at the things that matter to us. The trouble is that, as with many things, moderation is key. A little bit of pressure may well perform this function. Too much of it and we then find that we cannot perform at all.
Tackling the first pillar: It’s important to be honest about the types of pressure we are putting on ourselves. Ask yourself how you bring added pressures into your life, when you feel at your most pressured, and how you let that pressure off. Calmly asking yourself these questions is the first step towards reducing pressure’s negative impact on your life.
We all seek approval, but it’s when we need that approval to the point where it’s causing stress that we need to deal with it. Stemming back to childhood and the approval of our parents, the flames are fanned further by such things as the annual appraisal at work, and even the way we are ‘sold’ goods via adverts. That leads to the desire for a bigger house, a bigger car, a higher salary; all things we believe will make people approve of us more. Now, there is nothing at all wrong with wanting these things, but to break down this pillar of stress you need to know deep down that not having them will not make people love you any less.
Tackling the second pillar: Consider the following. How do you seek others’ approval? What would have to change for you to stop seeking the approval of others?
This area of stress is the one I find people have the most difficulty in recognising and challenging themselves on. It’s about not recognising our own limits, and causing ourselves pain by continually looking after others’ needs without paying heed to our own. I see this area of stress a lot during my work in the charitable sector. People working in these fields are doing fantastic work, but if it detracts from their emotional and physical health, it’s gone too far. This area of stress is also one into which many parents fall; putting so much emotionally into investing in their children that they don’t make time for themselves.
Tackling the third pillar: Ask yourself how different would your relationship be with those who you care for, if you set aside some resource to meet your own needs? What choices are you making that are contributing to building this pillar of stress?
One of the biggest issues I experience in my clients is the stress they cause themselves by trying to control things they either can’t or shouldn’t. Often expressed as worry, controlling behaviour or even blind panic, so often the facts show the problem the person is trying to control is not the real issue, rather, it’s their fears surrounding not being in control in the first place. Fear, then, is a big factor in control-related stress. Controlling behaviour in relationships, for example, generally stems from a deep-rooted fear of being abandoned, of ultimately not being good enough. I also see a lot of this particular stress in those who try to shrink their world to stop activities where they feel out of control. They may avoid going for a job promotion because it would entail public speaking, for example, a classic ‘out of control’ situation. Other people, particularly as they get older, always go to the same places, eat the same foods and see the same people because of the sense of security it brings.
The trouble with living life like this is that when situations arise we are absolutely not in control of – a traffic jam on the way to work, for example – it can lead to feelings of uncontrollable panic and heart-thumping stress because we are simply not used to not being in total control of any situation.
Tackling the fourth pillar: Good questions to ask yourself are, ‘How much control in your life do you really have?’ and ‘Where in your life could you exert less control and still feel safe?’
And lastly, we come to perhaps the most interesting, complex and challenging of the five pillars. It is often said that trust goes two ways, often by warring couples. For me, trust does indeed go two ways: trusting others and trusting yourself.
The fact is, we won’t get very far at all in life without some level of trust. We trust the engineers who made our car have done a good job, and that when we’re driving to work the other drivers are all insured and not about to do something dangerous. Lack of trust in others is quite easy to spot in the workplace. It’s that super-efficient person who stays until all hours (and is starting to look quite ill) because she or he cannot trust anyone else to delegate tasks to. It’s the manager who micromanages projects, staring over your shoulder to check every last detail.
When it comes to relationships, a lack of trust is toxic. When one person doesn’t trust a loved one, it leads to checked text messages, overheard conversations, heated arguments, with the one not trusted becoming cagey and jumpy. Both parties are stressed, in other words. The simple fact is, you can either trust a person or you can’t. If you can’t, there’s no point worrying about it, and if you can, there’s also no point in worrying about it!
A deeper challenge is to learn to trust yourself. Trust that you can cope with changes being implemented at work. Trust yourself to do the best you can when you’re standing up and delivering that presentation. Trust yourself to be the best partner you can be, the best parent you can be. And the payoff? When we trust ourselves, we can learn to enjoy ourselves, learn to relax and be happy in the fruits of our labour. When we have earned money for a holiday, we can trust ourselves to sit back and enjoy it. We can dare ourselves to be happy!
Tackling the fifth pillar: What areas of your life would benefit from you trusting more? Who will benefit the most if you trust more?
And there you have it. The five pillars of stress. Recognise them, and work out which apply most to you.
Look yourself in the eye and be honest.
You’ll be happier for it!
If you would like to develop yourself in these areas, learn how to to self-assess, raise your own awareness and more, you can explore our online emotional health support at Inner Calm.