Storms of Stress

The trouble lies in the hidden current beneath.

Posted Sep 24, 2014

Much has been written about the effects of stress on the mind and body and how various forms of relaxation and meditation can help. They can help. But they won't be enough to address an invisible undercurrent beneath the waves of stress that impedes most attempts at relaxation and mediation. In a storm, the waves attract all the attention. But the current beneath waves directs the stream before, during, and after the storm.

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

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

Stress without the threat of anxiety is typically experienced as excitement.

Double Stress Formula

The way most people cope with anxiety is to blame it on someone, which further magnifies the worst effects of stress.

Anxiety + Blame = Resentment

Resentment occurs when the possible failure, loss, or rejection that anxiety bodes is perceived as someone’s fault. Blame makes us feel powerless and keeps us focused on damage rather than solutions. The great magnifier of stress is blame, and its result is the hidden killer in stress: resentment.

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 needs. 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!”

“I’m the man; you have to cook my dinner!”

“I’m the woman; you have to support me!”

It's Contagious

Even hidden resentment is highly contagious. If someone comes into work resentful, by lunchtime everyone around him or her is resentful. Aggressive drivers make other drivers aggressive. A hostile teenager ruins the family dinner, and an impatient spouse makes TV-viewing tense and unpleasant. Resentment spreads car by car down the road, cubicle by cubicle throughout the workplace, locker by locker through the school, room by room in the home.

Resentment magnifies stress by breaking down concentration and draining off energy, impairing 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 cannot 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: your decision on how you will experience the traffic jam, i.e., what you will do during 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 audio book, 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, revaluate your stress list. Use the 1-5 scale to rate your average ability to cope with each item on your now resentment-free stress list.

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

  • Improving
  • Learning
  • Connecting to others
  • Appreciating more in life
  • Protecting those we love.

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

Warning: More Fairness doesn’t Change Past Resentments

Although perceived unfairness causes resentment, changes that produce more fairness will not resolve it. Once resentment becomes part of your automatic defense system, you have started looking for things to resent (so they don't snake up on you). Much research suggests that what the brain looks for it will find, via confirmation bias. Confirmation bias amplifies evidence for whatever you're looking for, while overlooking any evidence that disconfirms what you expect to find. That's bad news when you're looking for evidence of unfairness. It will almost certainly make you unfair.  

Once resentment is 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 their motivational opposites: improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting.