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Stress Management for Health Course

Stress and the Role of Perception

Stress and The Role of Perception (Appraisal)

"Our perceptions not any objective reality govern our emotional response and resulting behaviour.  Perceptions are based on beliefs, assumptions, values and conditioning.  We can dramatically reduce our stress by changing our distorted perceptions.  Our distorted thinking can exaggerate our perceived shortcomings.  We often paint events much worse, than they actually are by our distorted thinking, this greatly increases our stress . . . . . changing distorted perceptions  . . . . is an essential stress management tool." 

(Dr Valeri O'Hara PhD, Clinical Psychologist)

One of the most important tennants of stress management is the role that perception plays in stress.  Most people believe that it is external stressful situations or people that cause their stress but this is not 100% accurate, if it were, everybody who was exposed to a particular stressor would be affected, but this is not the case.  Stress is not a black and white issue of "Cause and Effect".  It is the result of a number of complex and interacting factors such as the interaction between the stressors and our perception of the stressors.  How we perceive/appraise an event (stressor) plays a very large role in whether the stressor triggers our fight/flight response.  For example if our perception is influenced by a negative, pessimistic thinking style the potential event will be perceived as more of a threat than say another person exposed to the same potential stressful event but who has a flexible, non-rigid, optimistic thinking style.

Some stressors are universally painful and stressful to most of us such as the death of a loved one.  Fortunately, these Major Life Event stressors are relatively rare; most of the stressors we encounter occur on a daily basis and are known as daily hassles. Our perception of these every day, non-life event, stressors, depends very much on our individual perception of those particular stressors. 

An example of a daily hassle is a traffic jam.  One person in the traffic jam may sit and fume becoming very angry at the delay, but another person in the same traffic jam may quietly accept the situation, calmly read a book and think that getting upset or irritable wont move the car one millimetre further.  This is the same potential stressor for both drivers, yet two different responses and this is partly due to the perceptions of the event by both individuals.

Stress researcher and Psychologist Doctor Richard Lazarus developed the Transactional model of stress which does not view the stressor or the person as the cause of stress; he says :

"Stress resides neither in the situation nor in the person, it depends on a transaction between the two."

(Dr Richard Lazarus, PhD, Clinical Psychologist )

An individual's perception is influenced by many factors such as:

  • Our beliefs
  • Our level of pessimism or optimism
  • Our Locus of Control
  • Our degree of stress hardiness

We will discuss these factors in more detail throughout Session 5.

For most challenging situations stress is not an automatic reaction.  We make two appraisals which influence the fight/flight response:

  1. Whether the event is a threat/stressful,
  2. Whether we feel we will be able to cope with it.

So, whether the fight/flight response is triggered in response to a situation depends on our perception of how threatening the situation is to us, often we perceive an event as being more of a threat than it really is.  This is then coupled with the belief that our ability to cope with it is less than it really is.  We can often make a "flag pole out of a match stick," or "add 2 and 2 and get 5."  Research has shown that 85% of the things we worry about never happen.  How many of us have really worried about an event, yet when the event happened it was not as bad as we had thought it would be?

Research indicates that our personality traits can be one factor in stress and that our perception of ourselves and the world in general is partly linked to our personality.  Now, this does not mean that because it is our personality and perception that we cannot learn alternative ways of delaing with our difficulties.  It is possible to change our perception from an unrealistic, inaccurate one, to a more realistic and accurate assessment.


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