Why Do You Get Stressed? (hint: It's How You Think!)

In the first part of this series we looked at the definitions of stress, stressor, emotions and feelings. We also looked at some of the statistics on the causes of stress in nursing, the negative effects on the body and mind and how emotional and mental reactivity to stressors and stress can perpetuate the stress that we experience. In the second part of the series, we’ll look at why we become stressed and begin to explore ways to stop our habit of “stressing out." Nurses Announcements Archive Article


Why Do You Get Stressed? (hint: It's How You Think!)


I think that there's been enough written in nursing about the positive and negative ways that we can deal with stress. And I've probably practiced all of them, the good AND the bad.

Basically, mostly what we're told is that we need to focus on what's good about our lives, what works at work, and how to take an active and proactive approach to dealing with challenges in the workplace. We're also given handy tips and tools to work with the stress that we experience to lessen its impact on our health and well-being. So if we know this, why are we still stressed?

When you take time to think about it, so many times in nursing, it's the "how" of what we're doing that matters most. For instance, during a very busy shift, when we don't have a lot of time to spend with all of our patients because one or two heavy patients are taking up all of our time, it's how we are with our other patients, - our presence, our attention, and our focus - that can make those patients feel like they still matter and are important to us.

So, maybe in the same way, when learning to deal with stress, it isn't what we do as much as how we do it that matters. I'm going to let you in on a little secret. For some of you, this may not be little and in fact, it might not be a secret at all.

This secret is that...stress is all in the mind, or at least that's where it becomes a problem.

Now I know what you're thinking. You're saying, "Right, so this guy is saying it's all in my mind and if I just stop my stinkin' thinkin', everything will be peachy!" Well, that's kind of what I'm saying...and not.

Previously we defined stress as the physiology, the emotion, that we experience as the result of stressors. Well, what do we usually do when we're feeling stressed or experiencing an emotion? First off, we think, "Oh, I'm feeling stressed, or angry, or sad, or...whatever." That is, we interpret the physiology - the juice - into a feeling, or "thought state."

What we do next is that, due to the elaborate scheme that we've created over the years, we begin to think about our feelings, to think about our thinking, to have feelings about our feelings; basically, we create an entire story about what we're experiencing and then react to that story. Woah, sound familiar?

And so it's no wonder that we want to do anything possible to push our experience away, with whatever coping strategy - positive or negative - that we've used in the past. What we're talking about here are thoughts and patterns of behavior, all states of mind, and all pliable enough for us to work with and - with determination - change.

I remember having a wonderful Native American teacher named Wallace Black Elk tell me, "Jerome, you can get more stinkin' thinkin' than drinkin'." And, from what I've experienced in both realms, drinking and thinking, I'd have to say that he's right!


When we begin to work with our patterns around how we react to stress, we start to find that our mind really is at the root of many of our challenges and struggles. It's not so much the experience that causes us suffering (stress) as it is our thoughts about the experience. We think something, and then react to it our thoughts and ideas about it.

For example, I may lose my patience with my son or wife, and first off I might think, "Why did they have to be so...whatever?!" And then I get to thinking about it more and think, "Oh, I was wrong, I'm a lousy parent or husband." And from thereon, the stories begin.

Or, I can be presenting a talk to an audience and see that everyone in the audience is smiling. So, I'll think, "I'm such a great speaker, I really know my stuff!" But then someone begins to nod off right when I get to a good part, or after the talk someone tells me that they were bored. Now I'll despair, thinking, "I'm such a lousy presenter." And then the self-doubt comes washing over me and I'm in trouble!

We give so much power to our thoughts. We believe in them, we listen to them, we create thoughts about our thoughts, and thoughts about our feelings, and feelings about our thoughts...right? I mean, is this crazy? And we do this to ourselves all of the time, don't we?

Here's another example of how quickly our thoughts can get away from us. I use this example a lot because people like it AND get it.

Suppose that I'm walking down the street and I see a car that I really, really like. Let's pretend that this car is also an expensive car and that I don't have nearly enough money to ever be able to buy this car. See where I'm going? My thoughts:

  • Wow what a nice car
  • I wish I had a car like that
  • That car must be really expensive
  • I'll never be able to afford such a nice car
  • Why can't I make more money
  • Nursing is so tough, I work so hard, and for what? I'm not paid what I'm really worth!
  • I should have stayed in computer programming back when I first started doing it in 1979 instead of going into nursing
  • Just think of my friend Sebastian, he makes so much money doing computer programming He gets to work at home
  • If I worked at home I wouldn't even have the space
  • I wish I had a bigger home, but how could I afford a big home
  • And, who'd take care of it? That would be another expense....
  • ...and I'm off and running right?

My thoughts have created more thoughts, and I'm telling my story over and over again....


I'd like you to reflect on the following ideas:

Do you ever stop to look at your thoughts?

Are thoughts real?

Right, you know that they're not.

Okay, so then that leads me to another question, which is... ...what kind of power do thoughts have over you?

Or, do they have any power over you?

It's kind of nice to take time to reflect on these ideas; we may get some insights as we do. Let me ask, have you stopped to look at your thoughts?

Have you stopped to look at your thoughts without thinking about your thoughts?

Interesting isn't it? Kind of like Nursing-Zen right?


When we start to observe our thoughts, we may notice that there's a nice little space between our thoughts, kind of a tiny gap where one thought has ceased and the next one hasn't arisen yet. It's within these gaps, between one thought and the next thought that we can start to get some space.

We've all experienced these gaps before; sometimes it's when we see a beautiful painting, or hear a work of music. Maybe it's while watching a sunrise with a loved one, or a sunset. Maybe it's when we're making love, right? That happens. So, we know that there's a place where our mind is relatively at ease, free of thoughts about the past, anticipating the future, but merely present in the present.

Let me ask you; what is your mind like when it's not trying to form ideas about things?

Who are you without your thoughts?

Well, just like I asked you if you've had a time when you weren't stressed, you've also probably had the experience of being free from a lot of thinking; like in the examples above.

The way that we achieve a less stressed life isn't about ridding our mind of thoughts. In fact, thoughts are natural in the mind in the same way that clouds are natural in the sky or waves are the nature of water. We become less stressed not by ridding our mind of thoughts, but by taking them less seriously AND not following after them.

Kind of like my story about the red car, becoming less stressed is about working with our mind to release its grip on its habitual ways of doing things. What we use to work with our mind and our thoughts has been termed mindfulness meditation, or sometimes just mindfulness, or sometimes, just meditation.

And that's what we'll cover in the final part of this series, but in the meantime here's what you can do to begin to work with your thoughts and thinking:

  1. Reflect on "who" you are without your thoughts. This shouldn't take a lot of effort or strain your mind. Just take some quiet time to reflect on, maybe even experience, who you are when you're not caught up in following one thought after another. Perhaps just watch your breath come and go, relax a bit, and let your mind wander without following after it.
  2. Are there certain thoughts that are "stronger" than other ones? Do you have your favorite top three "stressful thoughts?" I do; mine are about my health, financial matters, and world problems.
  3. What happens when you just watch your thoughts without thinking about them? This is similar to number 1, except that here, we're actually watching our thoughts but working not to follow after them. Take some time with this exercise.

In the next, and last, part of this series, we'll use our knowledge of stress and habitual thought patterns, and learn how to STOP ourselves before we begin sliding down the slippery slope of stinkin' thinkin'. AND, we'll discuss some very cool and easy to use (anywhere and anytime!) techniques to deal with stress after it's already impacted you!

For the complete series, please see:

Part 1: Is Nursing All About Stress?

Part 2: Why Do You get Stressed? (hint: It's How You Think!)

Part 3: A New Way to Deal with Stress

I've been an RN for over 30 years. I am an author, blogger, and keynote speaker. My site is: www.mindingthebedside.com

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