Imagine children whose parents are so poor they can barely afford food. When hungry, these children dig through garbage to find remnants of other people's meals. They sleep in cardboard boxes or outside, huddled together for warmth.

The world would say that this is an inherently stressful situation. Read The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, however, and you'll see this isn't necessarily true. Walls, who lived this experience during her childhood, saw much of it as an adventure. While this may be an extremely uncommon point of view, the truth is often revealed at the extremes, where it can stand free of common assumptions.

I'm not saying that things don't happen in the world. Things happen all the time. But they don't mean anything until we interpret them. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, "for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." It's thinking that creates all value judgments, and it's thinking that also creates stress.

The reason humans experience so much more stress than other species isn't just because we think more, but also because we think differently. Over the course of human evolution, our brains became far more capable of a certain kind of abstract thinking. Linguists call this counterfactual thinking. Your thoughts counter the facts of life as they actually are. For example, take a thought like "If I were ten pounds lighter, I would feel better about myself." That's a counterfactual thought. You weigh what you weigh, and your mind counters the facts of reality through an abstract thought.

Here are some more examples: "I should have more money." "My boss shouldn't micromanage me." "I know I'm going to lose my job." As I explain in The Myth of Stress, these are also counterfactual thoughts, because they, too, counter the facts of life as they actually exist. Here's what this matters: Whenever you experience stress, you are thinking counterfactually. And when your mind is brought back to factual reality, your stress dissolves.

This sounds too simple to be true, but it's the secret to far greater resilience. The less you think counterfactually, the less you experience stress. Stress, in this light, isn't a bad thing. It's simply a warning system telling you that your mind has lost touch with what's real.

Of course, some people reading this will say that's not true, that they experience stress exactly when they do see what's real — war, abuse, your in-laws, etc. But the mind that sees war doesn't experience stress until it believes "War shouldn't exist." The mind that sees your in-laws doesn't experience stress until it believes "They shouldn't be so critical." Then the stress begins. Look closer at the stress in your own life and you can identify that negative emotions are always built on counterfactual statements. "My husband should appreciate me more." "I should be more successful." "I need more money."

What can you do about that? Some people will turn to positive thinking, attempting to overpower their counterfactual beliefs. Instead of thinking "I should be more successful," they tell themselves that they are succcessful, or that they're going to be successful. But underneath these positive thoughts, the original negative ones remain.

Others will turn to solutions like meditation, yoga, exercise, acceptance, or letting go, all of which leave you feeling better for a short while. But again, the underlying thoughts are still in place, or you wouldn't be trying to change how you feel.

I call these approaches "additive" because they add a new thought or experience on top of the one we're trying to change. It's like putting new paint on rotting wood. For lasting change, what we need is something "subtractive," something that takes away the thought that we find painful.

This subtraction can't be done through choice or will power. Negative thoughts stick around because we believe them, not because we want them or choose them. So the key is to no longer believe them. Specifically, that means learning to see them as untrue.

This can seem impossible because the negative thoughts always seem so undeniably true. And the more true they seem, the more stress you'll feel. The strength of your conviction is the measure of your pain. Consequently, the degree to which you bridge the gap between your mind and reality is exactly the degree of your transformation.

Techniques that counter stressful beliefs, like REBT, cognitive therapy, The Work of Byron Katie, and ActivInsight, reconnect the mind to the world as it is. They do this to varying degrees and in different ways, but at the heart of each lies transformation through a shift in your thinking. I refer to this as insight.

These first three posts were meant to serve as a quick theoretical foundation so that you understand that:

1. stressors are a myth
2. stress in internally produced
3. stress is a byproduct of counterfactual thinking, which is dissolved through insight

In the next post, I'll share more on the nature of insight. In the meantime, what comments or questions do you have?


Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight, a simple process that is changing the way individuals and organizations understand stress and resilience. His new book, The Myth of Stress, reveals how ActivInsight quickly transforms problems at work, at school, and at home. You can ask Andrew questions in the comments here or through twitter @mythofstress.

The Myth of Stress

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

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