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Stress Management for Health Course

Stress Resistant Thinking - Introduction


"Cognitive Therapy developed out of the simple notion that a major part of why we get upset is not just that life is awful or very stressful.  Rather, it's the way we interpret things that happen to us and how we react to them that counts." (Brenda O'Hanlon)


Many of us believe that stress is primarily caused by external events, people and situations; for example, "If so and so hadn't said or acted in that way then it wouldn't have caused me so much stress."  If this were accurate then everybody exposed to the same difficult and challenging events would develop stress, but in reality this is not the case.  One person may find an event stressful, yet another person exposed to the same event may not find it stressful.  For example, if a train is held up, one person may use the time to catch up on work, yet another person may become irritated, angry and stressed at the delay.  This is the same event but two different responses.

Major stressors called life event stressors, such as the death of a loved one, are inherently stressful to all of us.  Fortunately these types of stressors are relatively rare and do not occur every day.  But what does occur every day are stressors called daily hassles and it tends to be our reaction to these daily hassles stressors that can cause us the problems.  The every day, daily hassles are not necessarily stressful to all of us, some people find them stressful but others do not.  We all know people who seem naturally more able to deal with stress than others. Research has shown that what tends to make the difference to whether a situation is stressful or not depends partly on the individuals thinking style and explanatory style.  A rigid, inflexible thinking style can make a person more vulnerable to stress.

Psychologists have discovered that human beings have an inbuilt negative thinking bias which would be useful if we still lived in the stone age as it would help us to survive.  However in the modern complex world it can be a hindrance as we cope with the mainly complex psychosocial based stressors that are inherent in modern society. 

The human brain is two pounds of the most complex software in the world, but it is really a bit dense!  It cannot work out the difference between short-term, physical threats and the longer-term psychological stressors, it triggers the fight/flight response for both types of stressors and, as we discussed in Session 1, the fight/flight response interferes with our thinking.  The fight/flight response diverts blood flow from the higher brain centres that deal with rational, problem solving tasks and diverts it to the lower, reptilian brain.  It does this to help us react automatically without thinking.  This is excellent if we are dealing with a physical, short-term threat such as if we cross the road and a car is nearly upon us, in order to get out of its way and survive we have to act instinctively; if we start thinking about the situation, the car would have run us over before we reacted.  However in the modern complex world these short-term, physical threats to our life are rare, they have been replaced by more chronic, complex, psychosocial stressors, for which we need access to our higher, thinking, problem-solving areas of our brain.

Researchers have found that when we feel stressed this alters our thinking; when we suffer acute, short-term stress the fight/flight response helps us think more quickly and more clearly, but long-term, chronic stress can undermine our ability to think clearly and interferes with our problem solving ability especially when we are trying to deal with modern, complex, psychological stressors.  We become more pessimistic, more negative and more vulnerable to negative thinking about ourselves, our abilities, other people and the world in general; this vicious cycle can maintain and exacerbate any stress, and hinder our ability to cope with and deal with the stress we are under.

Life can throw up many challenges that individuals have to find a way to deal with and it's how we deal with these difficulties that will play a large role in how we cope with life.  It is not all bad news however, fortunately our thinking style is not etched irrevocably into stone.  Using some of the techniques outlined in this session we can, with training and practice, learn how  to change our thinking style and used in combination with other stress management techniques this will help us increase our stress resistance and make us less vulnerable to stress. 


What is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Thinking is a habit and with time and practice we can change a habit.  Human beings are fortunate in that we have the ability to change our thinking and in so doing make ourselves more stress resistant.  In the late 1950's and early 1960's a revolution occurred in psychological medicine when Doctor Aaron Beck and Doctor Albert Ellis developed a new form of talking therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) respectively, to treat psychological problems like anxiety and depression.  Cognitive Behaivoural Therapy is a technique for identifying and challenging negative thinking styles that are factors in causing and exacerbating or maintaining problems like stress, anxiety and depression.  Research has shown that elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be used as an excellent stress management technique.  CBT and REBT are the most researched and the most proven, scientifically, of all the 400 different types of talking therapy.  The name is a bit of a mouthful but cognitive pertains to anything to do with our thinking and behavioural to our actions.  The research by Beck and Ellis revealed that our thoughts play a very powerful, influencing role in our feelings.

It is unrealistic to think that after years of thinking in a certain way that we can change our thinking overnight, it will take time, effort and practice, but it can be done.

Although uncomplicated stress can be helped by using self-help Cognitive Behavioural Stress Management techniques, if the stress isn't resolved or your stress is more complicated it would be advisable to consult a fully qualified Cognitive Behavioural Therapist.  You can find a recognised CBT therapist by going to the website at www.babcp.com where you will find an online register to locate your nearest CBT therapist.  The BABCP therapists work in the National Health Service and are fully trained.

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