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Invisible Currents Beneath Waves of Stress

What we don’t notice can kill us.

Key points

  • By all reports, stress is at a peacetime high.
  • Not all stress is negative; without anxiety or resentment, it’s exciting.
  • Stress laden with anxiety or resentment is more complex and exhausting.

Surveys report extraordinary levels of stress across the country. So much has been written about the ill effects of stress on the mind and body that recapitulation here is hardly necessary.

"Stress” has become an umbrella term, often indiscriminately including anxiety and resentment. Yet we call stress without anxiety or resentment “excitement” or “exhilaration."

The most powerful current that is driving waves of stress is anxiety—a feeling that something bad will happen—that you’ll fail or lose or get:

  • Insulted
  • Rejected
  • Harmed
  • Cheated
  • Betrayed
  • Depressed

Double Stress Formula

The way most people cope with anxiety further magnifies the worst effects of stress. They blame it on someone.

Anxiety + Blame = Resentment

Blame makes us feel powerless and keeps us focused on damage rather than solutions. The great magnifier of stress is blame, and the resulting resentment is the shark beneath the waves.

Resentment is a perception of unfairness—you’re not getting your fair share of:

  • Help
  • Appreciation
  • Consideration
  • Praise
  • Reward
  • Respect
  • Affection

Chances are, the emotional state you observe most often in the course of a typical day is some form of low-grade resentment, usually manifest as impatience, agitation, annoyance, irritability, sarcasm, superiority, or frustration, plus entitlement. Resentful people under stress feel put upon by what they perceive as the world’s unfairness and general insensitivity to their desires. Driven by high standards of what they should get and what other people should do for them, they feel chronically disappointed and offended. So it seems only fair, from their perspectives, that they get compensation for their constant frustrations. Special consideration seems like so little to ask. Here’s the logic:

“It’s so hard being me, I shouldn’t have to wait in line, too!”

“With all I have to put up with, I deserve to take home a few supplies.”

“With the kind of day I had, you expect me to mow the lawn?”

“All the taxes I pay, and they bother me about this little deduction!”

Resentment magnifies stress by breaking down concentration and draining energy, both of which impair the ability to cope. The report you need to write takes longer, consumes more energy, and has more errors, if…

“It should have been assigned to someone else!”

You might have been intrigued by the project, if …

“The production quotas were fair!”

You might enjoy taking your kids to the soccer game, if …

“Your spouse didn’t insist that you do!”

Traffic jams are horribly stressful when you focus on what you can’t control. Resentful people invariably focus on how the highway should have been designed or ask why the traffic lights are not properly synchronized or become highly critical of everyone else’s driving.

Traffic jams become much less stressful when you focus on what you can control, namely, how you cope with it. If you focus on what will make the experience of sitting in the traffic jam more pleasant or rewarding, your brain will start to come up with lots of possibilities, such as listening to music you like or an audiobook, thinking through a problem, making a phone call, and so on—almost anything you come up with in the “improve my experience” mode will lower stress.

Resentment/Stress Test

Here’s a simple test to determine whether your stress is magnified by resentment. Write down the five things that cause the most stress in your life.






Rate your ability to cope with each item on a scale of 1-5, where 1 equals no ability to cope and 5 equals maximum ability to cope.






Now take a moment to imagine that all traces of resentment have been removed from your stressors.

  • There’s no unfairness or injustice.
  • Everyone pulls his or her weight.
  • All live up to their responsibilities.
  • You have all the help, understanding, appreciation, consideration, praise, reward, respect, and affection you desire.

After giving yourself a few moments to enjoy an imaginary world without resentment, reevaluate your stress list. Use the 1-5 scale to rate your average ability to cope with each item on your resentment-free stress list.

When there is no resentment, we tend to focus on:

  • Improving
  • Learning
  • Connecting to others
  • Appreciating more in life

All the above lower stress and, not incidentally, bring about more fairness in the world over the long run.

Stress is like boating on a choppy sea. Stress with anxiety is boating in the storm. Stress with resentment is boating in a hurricane.

Warning: More Fairness Doesn’t Change Past Resentments

Although perceptions of unfairness cause resentment, changes that produce more fairness will not resolve it. The establishment of fairness can prevent the formation of new resentments in some cases. But once resentment becomes part of your automatic defense system, it has to be resolved within you, by systematically building more value and meaning into your life. You cannot simply “let go” of past resentments; you must crowd them out with focus on the opposites of resentment: improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting.