Who is the master and who is the slave – the myth of stress


People often come to me to help them get rid of the stress. They are prepared to invest significant amount of money to „kill that devil“ in a shortest time possible.

Usually, they end up being surprised after I tell them that stress is something they cannot get rid of, no matter how much they want it.

If we peek into literature for an advice, legendary John Faustus got two options from Mephistopheles to manage stress:

  1. Abandon his ambitions and live out his allotted years in a serene and unchallenging routine
  2. Sell his soul, pursue his ambitions, but die in seven years

James E. Loehr in his book „Mentally Tough“suggests us that the modern stress version of this infernal dilemma goes another way:

  1. Avoid all potential sources of stress – that is all challenges and changes – and you can be healthy and if fortunate, long-lived
  2. Confront a life full of change and challenge. Such a life will almost certainly be short, brutish, and nasty though, because all that stress will pay its toll on both mind and body.

On the surface, it could sound reasonable, but the truth is we cannot avoid some sources of stress as the death or serious illness of a family member, loss of employment, close friend abandoning us, etc.

We have to accept that stress is our long term partner who we cannot divorce, but we hold a key to stay happily married ever after.

Faustus dilemma comes from a traditional view, where stress is something that results from external events, but the emerging truth tells us different story.  Whether an external event is stressful or not is not determined by the event itself, but by our emotional response to event. And we don’t need to kill ourselves to get rid of the stress, or let Mephistopheles do that for us.  Instead of it, we can pursue our dreams and at the same time learn to manage stress better. So, there is a hope.

The most appeling question that arises on a horizon is how can we do it and where lies the Holy Grail (the final solution).  And the answer is: „ It lies in the process of knowing ourselves better and raising awareness of our successful and less successful coping mechanisms.  It is a life-long learning process with no guaranteed outcome.

Anyway, here in this article, I would like to put an emphasis on the first step of the journey. And it should be awareness. We have to become aware that as Victor Frankl suggest us „Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom“.

We cannot choose what life will bring us, but we can wisely choose to accept the things we cannot change, to change things we can and to learn step by step how to know the difference.

When it comes to stress events I suggest you to ask yourself following questions:

  1. „What facets of this situation or adversity can I potentially influence? As opposed to those you may consider beyond your control. Becoming utterly obsessed with what you can influence opens worlds of possibilities and that means investing energy in engagement and not in worrying.
  2. „How can I get through this as quickly as possible?
  3. What can I do to minimize or contain the downside of this situation?
  4. What can I do to optimize the potential upside this situation?
  5. What will I do and when? Answer to that question is in most cases when you least feel like stepping up. But, if you do it, it will give you so wanted traction and control.

In the end we must admit that we all have our demons, stresses and fears that influence our life and nobody can blame us – it is a part of being human, but also each day after opening our eyes, unlike Faustus, we can decide (as Madonna suggest us)”who is the master and who is the slave”.