The ultimate stress mis-understanding – and future hope

In Change, Insight, Stress, Thinking

There’s a little known story about the word Stress from the Hungarian Hans Selye, the guy who came up with the original concept.  The word Stress seems to have been coined as a result of mis-translating Selye’s work in to other languages; the word ‘stress’ was used to translate Selye’s original phrase “alarm reaction”.

Selye said that had his knowledge of English been more precise, he would have gone down in history as the father of the “strain” concept.

The term stress has been used in physics to describe elasticity; the ability of materials to bend to an external force and then return to their original state.

Now, the problem with using mechanical physics to explain stress is the implied assumption that the source of stress is external to the body, or person. Now in physics, causality underpins the science.  So when applied to the human notion of stress (and Selye ran in to difficulties replicating his work on animals in humans) using the physics approach would mean that every person impacted on by the same force e.g. “workplace stress”, would have to react the same way.  But they don’t.  For example some people dread deadlines and others thrive on them.

So a giant mis-understanding was born and grew to what is now considered the biggest mental health issue in business, purported to cost the British economy over £100Bn a year due to ‘work-generated stress’.  And the subsequent physical effects and mental ones including anxiety and depression.

So what is really going on? A clue can be found in as Selye put it: “Stress, in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”

We have a helping hand from the quantum physicist David Bohm who proposed Thought as a System to explain all human reactions, as well help from Evolutionary Biology and Neuroscience.

When you look at human behaviour through a systems approach it becomes clear it’s an inside job. That the power of thought (not the content nor context) determines how someone sees something, not what they see determining how they see it.  This explains why 100% of people see something different 100% of the time (see diagram below).  After all, and to remind you about causality, if the thing someone sees (the experience or ‘reality’) was the cause then everyone would have to experience an identical ‘reality’ or reaction.  Which is clearly not the case, however compelling it seems at the time to the individual e.g. they upset me.

I’ve conducted research into understanding thought as a system.  I surveyed 60 people using a standard stress test to measure stress levels, with the additional question of where they thought this came from; background, circumstance and other people.  The results are remarkable.  And to be clear, the feelings are real – that’s how we recognise our thinking.

As a consequence of people realising that their thinking and feeling is independent of circumstance, background and other people their stress levels continually dropped.  The difference from one end of the spectrum to the other is 27%.  They just feel better and are better able to deal with life and the workplace, as they know it’s not life nor the workplace creating their feelings.  These people are often labelled ‘resilient’ as if they have some magic power or skill.

I’ve also conducted similar research in to well-being (Using the Warwick Edinburgh Well-Being Survey) and resilience and the same results consistently show up: well-being and resilience increases as people understand that their feelings are independent of background, circumstance and how other people treat them.  In the case of well-being, a 45% increase.  Working with colleagues at Catalyst in Communities with a group of young people this Spring we raised average well-being levels by 16% across 88% of the group. For comparison, a programme of mindfulness taught to teenagers raised well-being by 3% which was considered promising.  Understanding Thought as a System yields an improvement more than 5 times that!  (You can watch the video here where the young people explain the impact in their own words)

Understanding thought as a system gives hope in ‘dealing’ with stress.  Which isn’t something to manage – that only puts fuel on the fire – but to understand the true cause.  And the consequent positive impact on physical health as well as reversing the impact of anxiety and depression.

A friend of mine, Jamie Smart, explains it succinctly in this short 2 minute video

If you’d like to have a chat about the potential impact of how understanding Thought as a System can have a positive impact on your business or organisation or project or intractable social problem then email me at:

Your comments, thoughts, and questions are always welcome.



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