The Myth of Stress

Where stress really comes from and how to live a happier and healthier life.

Where There's Smoke…

How stress is like smoke and learning to put out the fire

It can be helpful to compare the stress in our lives to smoke. Firefighters don’t believe that some smoke is inevitable in life, that it’s a motivator, or that it’s a good thing. They don’t practice “smoke management.” Instead, they recognize that smoke indicates fire, and that until the smoke is no longer being produced, the fire still burns.

Stress reveals fire of a different sort. It’s produced by friction between our beliefs about life and life itself. Someone who thinks his boss shouldn’t micromanage him, or she should have been promoted, or he should be more successful, experiences these beliefs as a kind of internal burning. The stressful emotions produced are the smoke.

We don’t want to “manage” the smoke by venting, drinking, shopping, justifying, or accepting. We want to put out the fire. The smoke is an effect, not a cause. It’s an important indicator telling us that our minds are burning.

So what’s burning in your life? What angers, frustrates, or depresses you? Trace those emotions back to the source by writing them down as Should or Shouldn’t statements, then challenge them using ActivInsight or another reframing technique.

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For example, take the case of someone who believes she should have been promoted. Believing this can kindle flames of resentment that last for months. Instead of complaining to a friend, what if she challenged the original belief and saw why, in reality, she should not have been promoted at this time. Some possible proof could be:

  • I didn't distinguish myself from my peers to the degree I thought I did.
  • I have been working hard but not smart.
  • I didn't find mentors in the organization with sufficient status and authority to advocate effectively on my behalf.
  • I pretended that biases and politics were less significant factors than they really are.
  • I've been evaluating my performance and achievements from my perspective, not from senior leadership's perspective.
  • I've thought my work would speak for itself instead of realizing that someone (me or someone else) has to speak for it.
  • I've been introverted in a culture that equates extraversion with success.
  • I haven't found ways to be who I am but still make my achievements known.
  • I've let my frustration over this get in the way of clear-eyed advancement of my ambitions and goals. 

This isn't justification. This is greater honesty and awareness, which is the fastest way to extinguish the flames that would otherwise continue burning. And the better we manage this internal landscape, the smarter we can be at addressing the external landscape.

So instead of managing the smoke, let's learn to put out the fire.

Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight and the author of The Myth of Stress.

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