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How You Think About Stress Matters

Dr. Lisa Finlay
Director of International Services, Headington Institute, 2017.


“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
— William James


William James is considered the father of American psychology. The idea shared above has been promoted by psychologists, but philosophers from many cultures have expressed variations of this concept. The fact that human beings do not just passively receive life events, but instead we selectively perceive, constantly interpret, automatically judge, and sometimes unwittingly create our own reality has been central to traditions that, for centuries, have emphasized mindfulness and centering practices. I prefer to situate James’ statement within this long history of contemplative traditions, because often I see it referenced in motivational writing where the message seems to be a bit superficial and circular—think positively so that you can feel good.

Choosing one thought over another is less about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and more about recognizing the power of interpretation in general. One of the most basic ways we see this play out is with something called your locus of control. When it comes to particular stressors in your life, you likely have an assumption about how much you can decrease or escape them. If you have a lower locus of control in general, this means you don’t believe you have much influence over your environment or your stressors. Those with a higher locus of control in general tend to assume more responsibility over their environment.

The more you believe that your actions can influence events and outcomes in your life, the more likely you are to actually attempt to moderate your stressors. I frequently find in my work with individuals that feeling trapped in a situation is what makes it most intolerable, and once someone makes a decision to move in a certain direction—even if there are losses that come with that decision, or they can’t enact the decision immediately—their stress level decreases.

I encourage you to think about some of the stressors you have faced this week or this month. And then ask yourself how you engage those stressors. Have you assumed that there is nothing you can do about them? Have you automatically linked any of them to a permanent flaw in another person or yourself? If so, there may be opportunities to choose another thought—one that will expand your sense of influence over the situation and bring momentum for change.


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