HOW PERCEPTION INFLUENCES OUR EXPERIENCE OF STRESS
Although there are many situations and events in life that can cause us to experience stress they are always influenced by how we personally perceive the event or situation. Although our difficulties and the obstacles we face in our life may be real it is sometimes the way we perceive them that can exacerbate the problems we are facing. If we perceive that some ones comment was critical our emotional response will be negative. We may experience anger, shame, fear, or feeling discouraged or defeated. If we perceive the comment as helpful advice our emotional response will be positive. We may experience gratitude or appreciation.
Stress results from the perception of having more to deal with than one can handle or, being faced with something one does not want to handle as in the example with the boss. It may also arise as a result of trying to avoid something one cannot avoid and feeling cornered, pressurized, criticized or trapped. It can be stressful when we are resisting something but it feels like it is overcoming us or, when we try to retain a level of control over our lives that seems unobtainable. Stress assumes a level of conflict that cannot be resolved. In the example with the boss the more we try to resist the boss’s demands the more we may realize that we are jeopardizing our job security which can lead to even more stress.
We want to perceive ourselves as having some independence and freedom of movement in our lives. We want to feel loved and respected. We would like to be seen and appreciated by others. We welcome being challenged and given opportunities to grow and get ahead. When we perceive that others are not treating us this way, as with the boss in our example, we can feel stuck and frustrated. In this situation we may consider discussing the situation to check whether our perception of what is demanded of us is correct and attempt to find ways to reconcile the boss’s needs with our ability to fulfill them. Having the skills to communicate effectively is a valuable resource in controlling our stress levels. You may want to take a course in communications to help reduce your stress.
Perception refers to how we think and feel about a situation. If we are able to change how we think and feel about a stressful situation this will change our stress level. In our example we may perceive that our boss will feel let down by us and not respect us. This may be true in part but not represent the whole truth. Our perception of him may be inaccurate. It is possible that if we approach him and state our concerns he will be sympathetic and give us some help which will enable us to successfully complete the project. If this occurred perhaps our perception of him would now be modified. We may assume that our work colleagues will have a negative perception of us because of the way we are handling the situation. This may have some validity but it may also be exaggerated. Perhaps they are actually quite supportive. If we perceive them as supportive and understanding then this will reduce our stress. Learning to be more aware of our perceptions and how to modify them can be a powerful resource in managing our stress levels. We will explore how to modify our perception in more detail in the section “Changing your perception of stressful situations”.