How You Explain Stress Determines How You’ll Get Through It

One of the most fascinating discoveries from my study on joy was that our thinking determines much of the results we reap in life.

Many individuals believe their circumstances are the cause of their stress and unhappiness. But studies show that circumstances only affect 10% of our overall happiness.

It is how we think about and explain our circumstances that makes the difference.

Now apply this to your stressful circumstance. Maybe your marriage is facing difficult times. If you explain the stress of your marriage as a problem that’s beyond your control, you’ll reap hopelessness, which will keep your negativity on a compounding cycle. 

But if you explain the stress of your marriage as a temporary challenge you’ll overcome, you’ll end up with more hope that will keep you invested in finding a solution. 

How you explain stress determines how you’ll get through it.

So how should we view our troubles if we want to overcome them and have more joy in life?

In my research, I discovered: joy begins when you view your hard things in life as journeys instead of dead ends. 

When your mind explains stress with optimistic thinking, you end up growing through your difficult times. But when your mind explains stress with pessimistic thinking, you end up succumbing to your difficulties.

What’s Your Explanatory Style?

Do you explain your stress and difficulties in a negative or positive way? 

How you describe the events of your life are what researchers call your “explanatory style.” Research shows that people with negative explanatory styles have a higher risk for depression and typically have greater trouble recovering from setbacks. 

On the other hand, research also reveals that people with a positive explanatory style typically have greater overall health, wellbeing, motivation, and have lower stress levels. 

People with a negative explanatory style view their stress and adverse events of their life as dead-ends, and their health suffers for it. People with a positive explanatory style view their stress and adverse events as journeys and obstacles they can overcome. 

If you want to achieve lasting, positive change in your life, you need a positive explanatory style (otherwise known as a positive mindset).

But if you have a negative explanatory style, shifting your mindset is no easy task. The first step is to recognize what your negative explanatory style looks like, understand where it’s leading you, and then choose the path of hope.

What a Negative Explanatory Style Looks Like

Building on the work of Martin Seligman (the father of positive psychology), Albert Weiner developed the Attribution Theory, which states how people explain a situation to themselves. There are three components to this theory. People either have a . . .

  • Global vs. Local Attribution
  • Stable vs. Unstable Attribution
  • Internal vs. External Attribution

People with a negative explanatory style have a global, stable, and internal attribution to the cause of their stress. Lets dive into what each of these mean.

1. Global vs. Local Attribution 

Do you view your stressor as being pervasive, meaning it touches multiple areas of life, or do you view it as specific, meaning it only affects one area?

A global attribution would look like this: if you were late to work (stressor), you have to stay later at work which somehow makes you a bad parent because you won’t be home on time. You being late to work affects more areas of life than one. 

But a local attribution would look like this: if you were late to work, you only have to work harder to catch up at work. It’s not tied to your ability to parent at all. 

A negative explanatory style would see their stressors as pervasive, seeping into multiple areas of life. This leads to dead-end thinking.

2. Stable vs. Unstable Attribution

Do you view your stressor as being a permanent force in your life, or as something temporary?

If you have a stable attribution, you might experience one bad event and think more bad events are on the way. You might think, things will only get harder.

But if you have an unstable attribution, you view your stressors as not being permanent. Your stress won’t stick with you for a long time. You never know when things will change.

A negative explanatory style views problems as lasting longer than they actually do. Again, this leads to dead-end thinking.

3. Internal vs. External Attribution

Do you view your stressor as something personal, meaning it’s your fault, or as something impersonal, meaning it’s not your fault?

An internal attribution personalizes problems. If someone is angry at you, an internal attribution would explain this as, it’s all my fault and I’m a bad person. 

An external attribution might look at this situation and say, I’m not sure what that person is going through at the moment. It doesn’t view the problem as being all your fault.

An internal attribution makes problems bigger by viewing them as being caused by some fault within yourself. When this is part of your negative explanatory style, it leads to dead-end thinking. 

Choose the Hopeful Explanation

When we have negative explanatory styles, we believe it’s a natural consequence of the event. But it’s not. It’s a cognitive distortion which can be changed. 

We can choose the hopeful explanation.

One way to do this is to play out the consequences of your negative explanation. I do this by constructing a Negativity Cycle. I label the stressor, what thought that produces in me, and what emotions and behaviors that lead to.

To choose the hopeful explanation, I construct a Positivity Cycle. A Positivity Cycle helps you plan out the new belief you want to believe, and then build the experience to give you that belief. 

Once these cycles are constructed, you have a choice laid before you. You can either choose the negative response from your Negativity Cycle or choose the positive belief from your Positivity Cycle.

Oftentimes, my Positivity Cycles present problems as a journey. My stress is just an obstacle on the way to something greater. But the more I choose my negative response, the more I trap myself in a dead end.

It’s time you shift your thinking to view your hard things as journeys instead of dead ends. 

Your situation does not have to lead to a hopeless place. Instead, you can make the choice to journey through your struggles. Where you end up is always better when you make the choice for positivity. 

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