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Stress is one of the most common reasons people come to see a psychotherapist. The emotional and physical toll it takes on our lives and our bodies is immense. Stress drains us of the energy and vitality that is so precious to us. We all have our own strategies for managing stress. Sometimes, however, our usual strategies are just not enough. By the time someone comes to seek counseling they have often realized that their coping strategies are coming up short. They are looking for help to get the stress in their lives under control.
In my years of work with people from all walks of life I have found that one of the most widespread and least recognized sources of stress comes from careless use of the terms “should”, “ought to”, “need to”, “must” and “have to”. I refer to these as “should and all its cousins”. Whenever we say “should” we feel an immediate stress placed on us. As I will explain later the stress from should and all its cousins has a uniquely harmful and exacerbating impact. The urgent and obligatory tone conveyed by these terms makes them highly volatile stress generators.
Understanding what stress is, what triggers it and how it is expressed in our bodies is an important first step in the process of learning to manage it constructively. A basic definition of stress is “the impact of a force pressuring for change”. This is true if we are talking about bridges in civil engineering or personal wellbeing in psychology. Any time an object has force exerted against it resulting in pressure to change, that object experiences stress. Any time a person perceives a pressure to change, that person will experience stress. Constructively managing that pressure without being harmed is the goal of civil engineers and psychologists alike.
An important feature of psychological stress is that it is mediated through a filter we call perception. The forces pressuring us to change have an impact on us commensurate with the way in which we perceive them. This is why what seems extremely stressful to one person may not be at all stressful to another. The way we perceive an event or situation determines how much stress we will feel from it. Managing our perceptions is one of the most powerful resources we have to cope with stress!
Our bodies respond to the pressure to change by mobilizing resources to cope with that pressure. If the change being called for is small, the mobilization of energy is minimal. If the change being called for is large, the mobilization of energy is greater. If the change being called for involves a threat, the body mobilizes in a qualitatively different and dramatic way. To understand the way our bodies respond to stress it is helpful to look at some aspects of the nervous system.
Anatomically and physiologically the structure of our nervous system has been divided into several subsystems. One subsystem, which controls the automatic functions of our body such as our heartbeat, is called the autonomic system. It is divided into two systems called the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. Essentially the parasympathetic system is the routine maintenance system. It keeps our bodies healthy and functional day in and day out. The sympathetic system is the emergency response system. It mobilizes our body functions to cope with threats. This mobilization by the sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the “fight or flight response”. It is important to note that while activation of the fight or flight response is normal and healthy it is designed only to be activated infrequently and for brief periods of time because it interferes with the normal maintenance functions. Excessive activation of the fight or flight response can cause our bodies harm.
The trigger for the activation of the fight or flight response is perception of threat. When the brain receives a message that indicates there is a threat to personal integrity it activates the sympathetic nervous system. This message can come in many forms but one of the most common sources of the message is thoughts; more specifically thoughts in the form of language. Anytime someone thinks “I am in danger”, “something bad is going to happen” or “I am being trespassed on” their sympathetic response is activated. It is this response that most of us are referring to when we say “I am feeling stress.”
Here is where should and all its cousins come into play. When we think “I should do that” (insert anything you want in place of the generic “that”) we are giving our brains a message that carries an implicit threat. “If I don’t do that something bad will happen.” Our brains respond to should and its implied threats by activating the sympathetic response. The perceived threat conveyed by should and all its cousins is responsible for the physiological stress response in our bodies.
A simple but powerful strategy to combat this problem is to replace “should and all its cousins” with “want and all its cousins”. Want’s cousins include “would like”, “prefer”, “will” and “choose”. Whenever you find yourself thinking or saying “should” stop yourself and think or say the same thing but substitute the words “want” or “would like”. If you were thinking “he shouldn’t talk to me that way” restate the sentiment as “I don’t want him to talk to me that way.” If you were thinking “I ought to go mow the lawn” instead think to yourself “I would like to go mow the lawn.”
One of the immediate reactions you may notice is that this rephrasing of the situation puts you in the driver’s seat. Instead of being the victim of an external standard which is imposed on you, now you are the active participant in assessing your own sense of the importance of the situation. A second reaction you may notice is “…but I also don’t want to mow the lawn.” It is normal to have competing desires, as in wanting your cake and wanting to eat it too. It is the normality of that dilemma that makes it healthy. Not always getting what we want is just a normal part of life. Not getting what we “should” get or “need to” get is a crisis. Most significantly, you will begin to notice that the stress of the situation is reduced.
I have taught this strategy to my patients for years. I consistently hear back from them that it was one of the most helpful things they experienced. Try it yourself. See what it does for you. If you experience benefits from this one simple change you may get a glimpse of the benefits you could get from psychotherapy.