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Remember: Perceptual stress is based on your beliefs about a particular event rather than the actual event. And as we pointed out, your brain is not able to distinguish between whether your stress is from an actual, external source, or based on your inner experience. In both cases, it responds by releasing stress hormones, which leads to the release of adrenalin and noradrenalin into your bloodstream, which stimulates your heart and raises your blood pressure. In other words, you could be eating a healthy diet and working out, but unless you set things straight about what’s a real threat and what’s not, you could be headed for a heart attack!

If perceptual stress is based on having the wrong perspective regarding the presence of stress, the simplest thing to do is to change your perspective. Viewing a stressful situation from a different vantage point can actually reduce the negative impact of the stressor.

Let this sink in:

You can effectively navigate perceptual stress if you intentionally change your perspective.

True. Changing your outlook on the challenging event is easier said than done. However, there are several coaching strategies that can help. We’ll explore five possible options of which one or two might make a significant difference in your life. Or it could be that you and a trusted friend identify another option that would work for your specific perceived source(s) of stress.

STRATEGY 1 | When you’re feeling disappointed or stressed, ask yourself “What is the expectation I hold that has resulted in me feeling this way? Is that expectation reasonable? And is it realistic?”

For example, it may be reasonable to expect a former marathon runner to be able to still run in their 50s. However, if the person has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (which is the case with me, Denny, author of this content) then that expectation is no longer realistic. Even in my late 40s, when on a walk with my wife Debbie, I could no longer always keep up with her—even though she spent the first 20 years of our marriage trying to keep up with me!

Based on your answer to whether your expectation is both reasonable and realistic, you then have four options:

  1. You can cling to your expectation and continue to be frustrated, disappointed and stressed.
  2. You can clarify your expectation. However, if that does accomplish your objective, consider…
  3. You can modify your expectation.
  4. Or you can abandon your expectation. This abandonment can pertain to giving it up, or giving it over to God.

Being intentional about the option you choose can set you free from the negative impact of perceptual stress.

Respond to the prompts below and share insights with your spouse or trusted friend. It is well worth the hard work of unearthing expectations!

  • What are some sources of disappointment for you?
  • For each of the sources, identify your expectations that have gone unmet.
  • Test those expectations: Are they reasonable? Realistic?
  • Next, decide whether you will cling to your expectations and remain stressed, or if you will clarify, modify or abandon them.

STRATEGY 2 | When you’re feeling frustrated or stressed, think of one of the wisest persons you personally know, then ask yourself, “What would they do?”  Even if you do not seek counsel from this wise friend, this exercise can be helpful. Consider how they might perceive the same circumstances. From what you know of them, how would they feel about the situation? How might they handle the situation? What would this person do differently than what you are doing? Once done, repeat this whole exercise two more times, each time inserting the name of one more wise person you know.

Next, consider what adjustments you want to make in your perspective, attitude and actions. Don’t worry about how you feel about the situation. Often times, feelings follow attitude and actions. Experiencing a change in feelings can often be the last step in the process.

Respond to the prompts below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend.

  • Who are the three persons you thought of?
  • What insights did you gain by doing this exercise?
  • In what ways did it help you gain fresh perspective?

STRATEGY 3 | When confronted with the challenge of possibly having a false belief about a situation or person, you can effectively navigate the resulting perceptual stress by asking, “Which is better: A, or B?”

This exercise is much like going to the eye doctor for an exam. The doctor puts lenses over your eyes that have different impact on your ability to see better. Likewise, by considering different “lenses”—ways to look at a stress-inducing situation—it can help you discover some of the lies hidden among your beliefs.

Depending on the situation and your personality, you might already be using a dark lens, looking at a circumstance through the worst possible outcome. The bright lens, on the other hand, picks the best possible outcome, finding the opportunity beneath the surface of the issue. But even that might not be the truth. It could simply be that you wish for the best.

Another lens (or two) you can try is to look at the situation from the vantage point of another person or persons. If you’re facing challenges with others, try envisioning the situation from their vantage point. Ask yourself,

  • How might the other person see these same circumstances differently?
  • In what way does that view make sense from that person’s perspective?

It may be that the perspective of the other person does not at first make sense to you. However, in the spirit of Stephen Covey’s mantra to “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” keep trying to think of reasons why the particular view would make sense to them. Doing so can provide a breakthrough in your own beliefs about the person who is causing you stress.

Respond to the prompts below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend.

  • In what ways did trying different lenses help you gain fresh perspective?
  • What did you learn from trying to see a situation from an adversary’s point of view?

STRATEGY 4 | It is said that you don’t think yourself into a new way of acting, you act yourself into a new way of thinking. So, if perceptual stress is caused by your own beliefs—what you think about people and situations—it is worth asking yourself, “What can I do differently that will eventually lead to a change in my thinking?” Resolving the stress about the particular situation may be as simple as intentionally changing your behavior.

But changing your behavior can be difficult if it’s entrenched in life-long patterns and rooted in  insecurities. Challenges in interpersonal behavior can become a dripping faucet of annoying little behaviors that can fill a home or a workplace with stress. Some examples include:

  • Refusing to apologize or ask forgiveness
  • Having to get one’s way or be right at all times
  • Speaking out of anger
  • Failing to listen
  • Failing to express gratitude
  • Passing the blame onto others
  • Refusing to give credit
  • Making excuses
  • Being negative and sarcastic
  • Speaking ill of others
  • Refusing to let things go
  • Dismissing the feelings of others

“OK, so I’ll try harder,” you might respond. Your circumstances won’t change if only you “try harder.” It may be time to stop doing what you had done in the past! Leadership guru Peter Drucker reminds us:

Even the growth of gifted ministry leaders can get stumped by being unaware of bad habits, or refusing to do the work of forging new habits. Refusing to change your behavior, however, does not help eliminate perceptual stress. And as you know full well by now, not only does lingering stress erode the condition of your soul; it can literally kill you!

If you are willing to do the work of stopping damaging behaviours and forging new paths, making changes is actually not that hard. For example, if you’re told that you exhibit a lack of gratitude, make a point to thank folks, or start a gratitude journal. Remember, while you might not feel grateful at first, you can act yourself into a new way of feeling. Or if you are a poor listener, be intentional about keeping your mouth shut 30 seconds longer than your natural tendency. Give those around you permission to give you simple cues when you slip back into your old ways.

Respond to the prompts below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend. If you’re stumped for an answer to these questions, ask those around you for clue. They likely have several answers ready for you!

  • What is the one thing you can start doing that if you did it consistently, it would make all the difference in your personal and/or your professional life?
  • What is one thing you can stop doing by being intentional and consistent that would make all the difference in your personal and/or your professional life?

STRATEGY 5 | Finally, by now, you may have tested your expectations, considered WWTD?, changed your lenses, even changed your actions. If none of that resolved the stress, it is worth asking yourself, “Is my attitude part of the problem?” You may simply need to change your attitude!

Here’s the good news, though. The easiest thing to change about a bad situation is your attitude about it. And the easiest way to change a bad attitude is by choosing to do so.

Airline pilots have a saying that underscores the truth of what a change in attitude can do for you: “Your attitude determines your altitude.” With airplanes, the attitude of the plane refers to the upward and downward pitch during flight. A slightly negative attitude will result in losing altitude and eventually hitting the ground—whether in a landing or a crash. A slightly positive attitude will result in a gain in altitude. A too steep positive attitude will result in the plane to stall, go into a tailspin, and crash.

Similarly, your chronic negative attitude will eventually have disastrous consequences. As we’ve pointed out several times, your brain cannot distinguish between real stress and perceived stress. Hence, a negative attitude is seen as stress. Your prolonged negative attitude literally alters the production and release of serotonin, dopamine and other hormones essential for good emotional health. To focus mostly on the negative eventually results in self-pity, and, according to Dr. Tim LaHaye, author of the award-winning book, How to Win Over Depression, “Nothing produces depression faster or more deeply than self-pity.”

While it is not possible to simply snap out of endogenous, biochemically-based depression, you can prevent taking a nose dive by choosing to change your attitude. Change your attitude, and your emotions follow over time.

The impact of a negative attitude also impacts your relational health. Negative people attract other negative people while repelling positive, happy and well-adjusted individuals.

On the flip side, a positive attitude can and will make all the difference in your outlook and how your life unfolds. Here are just two of many ways a positive viewpoint can enhance your life:

  1. You will be drawn to positive people, and they will be drawn to you. Overall, this will result in more emotional, relational and mental vitality. It can even produce more physically energy, health—and fun.
  2. You will handle setbacks better. A good attitude increases your capacity to see options. And when things don’t go as you expected, you will bounce back quicker, knowing, “This, too, shall pass.”

Respond to the prompts below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend.

  • How would you rate your attitude in general?
  • How often do you actually express your negativity?

You’ve completed this Strength Journey on Freedom from Stress.