Stress is a Choice: Event + Response = Outcome

Stress is a Choice: Event + Response = Outcome

“Remember that stress doesn’t come from what’s going on in your life.
It comes from your thoughts about what’s going on in your life.”
— Andrew J. Bernstein

I often think of a handy equation whenever I’m faced with a task or a situation that doesn’t sound very appealing: Event + Response = Outcome. In other words, I may not be able to do anything about the situation or event, but I can certainly adjust my response to it, and thus change the outcome. Once I get over my initial whining and come to terms with the fact that a particular event is inevitable, I shift my mind to think of how I can make the most of the situation.

In the face of an unpleasant event, our knee-jerk reaction might be to assume that Event = Outcome. “It’s pouring rain, so I guess we’ll have to stay indoors and watch reality TV shows today.” That’s one possible response, albeit a lame one. When faced with the same situation, our kids might say, “Awesome, let’s go outside and play mud football!” That’s a very different response to the same event, and it sounds like a lot more fun. We can choose to be lame or awesome in our response to any event. It’s all about our perception.

Let’s take stress as an example. Stress is just a perception, not a function of an event itself. It’s a response that we choose. We assume that something negative is going to happen and feel anxious as a result. Why start out with such a negative prediction? After all, we don’t know how the event is really going to turn out. Why not envision something positive and optimistic instead? Consider the event as an opportunity to learn or shine and choose to feel excited about the opportunity rather than be stressed out about it. We are responsible for the perspective we choose to see and the feelings we experience in any situation.

Of course, there are some situations that warrant a stress response. For example, if someone throws us into a dark closet with a bunch of angry rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders, we can be forgiven for feeling a wee bit of stress. But there are plenty of other situations in which stress is something that we needlessly create in our mind. We don’t have to feel stress in response to most of the things we encounter in our day-to-day life.

The same is true for the preconceived notion that we’re going to feel bored or uncomfortable at an upcoming event. As an off-the-charts introvert, that thought may have crossed my mind a few times. Let’s say we receive an invitation to a party that we can’t decline, and we immediately envision being stuck in endless conversations about the weather, baseball, and the Kardashians or whatever else is trendy at the time (don’t ask me … I’m far from trendy). That’s one way to approach the event: with dread.

Another option is to reframe the occasion as an opportunity to practice a particular skill or meet a particular person. If we’re really desperate, we can frame it as an opportunity to practice making eye contact, giving a firm handshake, remembering names, or trying to find someone who has been to Mongolia. Make a game of it.

Better yet, become a detective. Recognize that everyone has an interesting, amazing story to tell, and our job is to uncover that story by asking the right questions. Whenever I’m stuck attending an event (ahem … let’s try that again.) Whenever I have an opportunity to attend an event, I try to think about who will be attending and I come up with a few good questions that might lead to interesting and meaningful conversations. Sometimes, I even type those questions into the Notes app of my phone so I don’t forget. The bottom line is that my fate is up to me. I can either take the time to come up with a few good questions, or I can roll the dice and risk wasting an entire evening talking about something that bores me to tears.

We have complete control over our own attitude in any situation, yet we often behave as if we have no control. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.” This timeless nugget of wisdom has been passed down through the ages, yet it’s all too easy to forget.

So the next time you are feeling stressed out, pause, take three deep breaths, remind yourself that stress is a choice, and choose a positive response that will yield a desirable outcome. Event + Response = Outcome.

Thanks for reading and choose to have a stress-free day!