Topic Progress:

What it is | On June 7, 2017, a 31-year-old climber from Sacramento made world history. Alex Honnold scaled Yosemite’s 3,000-foot high El Capitan with no ropes, and no safety gear. While it is true that Honnold is in a league of his own when it comes to his skills as a rock climber, no one in the world views the risk of climbing a bare rock face the way this intrepid climber does! His perception of the dangers of free solo climbing could not be further removed from how the rest of us would view this risk. If you dare, watch this clip about his climb.

Some folks—while being asked to do something simple like travel by airplane, or move to another state—can experience the same level of stress as if they were placed on a rock ledge above Yosemite without any safety gear! But other folks view potentially-stressful situations merely as challenging, stimulating, or downright ordinary.

Here’s an important insight: Most stress is brought on by external circumstances, events over which you have very little control. Perceptual stress, however, emerges from within. It is rooted entirely on what you think about an experience. Why? Your brain simply is not able to discern the difference between a real stressful circumstance and your perception of the same event. And in both cases, it responds by releasing stress hormones.

The same is true for comparison, as it is rooted in beliefs. When you compare your inner-world experiences with the image-managed world of others, the stress you experience can be crippling.

A third way your beliefs manifest as perceptual stress relates to your expectations—whether your own, or that of others. You may expect certain responses from folks around you or anticipate a particular outcome to events. And when your expectations are unmet, your disappoint can likewise manifest as stress. Your brain, once again, treats your beliefs as fact. Likewise, you may believe you aren’t living up to the expectations put on you. It can cause worry and anxiety to the point that you either choke under pressure, or you put pressure on yourself to act in a way that is incongruent with who you are.

How to manage it | Since perceptual stress is caused by your own beliefs—including comparison and expectations—managing it requires introspection. Ask yourself whether what you believe about a situation, a person or an expectation is reasonable and realistic.

If you are concerned about what others might think of you (comparison), here’s great news: Most people aren’t thinking about you at all! They have their own challenges, so you can simply let go of that self-imposed stressor.

As for expectations, those can have deep roots that are buried deep beneath your conscientious awareness and can be intertwined with your deepest motives and intent. Getting to the root may demand deeper digging. In the meantime, simply do your job the best you can.


Answer the questions below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend.

  • Are there situations where you tend to stress while others are calm? What is it that you believe about those situations that cause you to stress? And how does it help to know that your brain treats your beliefs as fact and secretes stress hormones?
  • Do you tend to compare yourself to others? Or are you taking on unnecessary stress by believing they are comparing themselves to you? What will you do to eliminate this self-imposed stress of comparison?
  • As for expectations: What strategies can you employ to let go of unreasonable expectations of others, or to address their expectations of you?
  • It is said that that perception is reality. But that is not true. Your brain only perceives it to be reality! In what ways can you remind yourself that perception is NOT reality?