We are in the process of creating a new online program specifically for people who experience a lot of stress.  As part of my research I attended a lecture on stress in San Francisco last week delivered by Dr. Sian Bieland, a University of Chicago professor.

Dr. Bieland explained to the U of C alumni audience how “stressful situations” make us “choke.”  She described how stress affects us and then offered us a few tips on how to alleviate or overcome stress when we experience it in business or in sports.

As I listened I had the thought: Most psychologists and personal growth gurus assume that problems (such as stressful situations) really exist “out there,” “in the world,” and then offer solutions to deal with them.  I have a real problem with that approach because I don’t think that many of the so-called problems exist independent of us. (See my post, “How To Change ‘Human Nature’,” which deals with a similar topic, http://www.mortylefkoe.com/change-human-nature/#)

In other words, if there were such a thing as a stressful situation, then it would be very useful to learn how to deal with it effectively.  But I contend there is no such thing as a stressful situation.  Situations, as such, have no inherent meaning.  And meaningless events can’t make us feel stress or anything else.

The stress we experience is the result of the meaning we give to events, not the events themselves.  Change the meaning and the stress disappears.

Here are a few examples of how we attribute meaning

Assume your business fails and you have to declare bankruptcy.  Most people would agree that that is a stressful situation.  If you give the bankruptcy the meaning that you failed, that it means something bad about you, that you will never be able to earn enough money to support yourself and your family, etc.—then that meaning will cause considerable stress.  On the other hand, if you have read the life stories of successful people (in business and other fields of endeavor) and know that most of them attribute their success today to the lessons they learned through “failure” earlier in life, your bankruptcy would occur to you as a valuable learning lesson. And if you assigned the event this meaning, you would not experience stress.  Many years ago my wife Shelly and I experienced bankruptcy and foreclosure on our home.  Shelly experienced tremendous fear and stress, because she gave the events the meaning I described above.  I experienced no stress whatsoever, because the events occurred to me as learning opportunities.

Here’s another example: In a recent Lefkoe Occurring Course one of the participants told us how he had helped some friends whose house had burned down, destroying virtually all their possessions.  The friends were devastated.  But after the people whose house burned down talked for a while to their friend  (who was learning how to stop giving meaning to events in our course) they realized that they had always wanted to live out of the United States, they had an idea for a new business they had always wanted to start, etc.  By the time the conversation was over the couple was excited about all the possibilities they had identified and were no longer upset about the destruction of their home.

One more story:  Another student in an Occurring Course wrote about how she dealt with her daughter being taken to the hospital in a lot of pain.  The doctors initially had no idea what was wrong with her, so they had to give her a lot of tests.  The mother kept thinking to herself, “My daughter’s pain doesn’t mean anything.  It doesn’t mean she is going to die, or even that she is very sick.”  When the doctors came in after many hours to tell her that her daughter would be fine, she realized that not giving her daughter’s condition any meaning enabled her to stay present with her daughter and help calm her down, rather than be hysterical as she would have been had she given negative meaning as she would have in the past.

For people who have never experienced that events have no inherent meaning, stories like these can be difficult to believe, and yet that is how life occurs to me every day and to many others who have learned how to stop giving meaning to events.

Back to my original point: Wouldn’t it be better to learn how to dissolve (or not even experience) stress than to learn how to cope with it while being overwhelmed by it?

Meaning we make up is the source of most relationship difficulties

Stress is not the only type of emotion that is the result of meaning.  Almost all upsets and arguments are the result of the meaning we give the other person’s behavior.

There are many psychotherapists and relationship experts who offer excellent advice on how to minimize arguments and deal more effectively with them when they occur.  But if upsets and arguments are the result of the meaning you give the behavior of others, and you can dissolve that meaning, then upsets and arguments are no longer inevitable.  I’ve eliminated about 95% of them from my life since I learned to stop giving meaning to what my wife Shelly and my two daughters do and say.

Here’s a description of how someone in my last Occurring Course changed the meaning he gave some events and totally shifted his reaction to loved ones.

“On Sunday evening, I tried to call my daughter, but I got her voice mail. I tried to call my girlfriend, and I got her voice mail. I tried to call my son and I got his voice mail.  It occurred to me that everyone else was somewhere having fun and I was not and that they were so busy having a good time that they didn’t have time to talk to me.  I quickly noticed that it was not the truth, just my interpretation. It caused me to smile to myself as I noticed how I had made it mean that they didn’t want to talk to me. [As soon as I made that distinction] the bad feeling was gone. “

What a difference a little bit of meaning makes!

My tip of the week

Before you look for a solution to a problem that seems to exist “out there,” check and see if it really exists independently of you or whether the meaning you have given events in the world created the problem to begin with.  If so, then dissolve the meaning that is causing the problem by realizing that there is a crucial difference between what actually happens in reality and the meaning you give those events that exists only in your mind.  When you’ve done that, the meaning will dissolve along with the problem that the meaning had caused.

Please leave your comments and questions about dissolving problems we created to begin with, instead of coping with or handling problems that appear to be in the world.

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