Remember this internet meme from 2015? What colour was the dress? Everyone saw something different.
Actually the dress was blue and black, but the blue-biased lighting in the original photo made it look white and gold. Few, if any, of us have ever seen the original dress. All we had to go on was a picture of it. A low-quality picture in bad lighting that made it tough to tell what was really going on with that dress.
What does all this have to do with stress? A lot.
In a photograph, lighting can change everything. Even in real life, lighting can change our perception. Remember “seeing” a monster peeking out of the closet when you were a kid in bed? The more you stared at “him” the more detailed he became. Of course, when your parents threw some light on the subject it was clear that the “monster” was a creation of dim lighting and an overactive imagination. But it seemed so real. It probably even fired our kid-sized fight-or-flight response.
As grown-ups, do we still see monsters in the closet?
When we’re stressed we often don’t see context. The “lighting” plays tricks on us.
Quick, what’s this picture?
Some people see only a duck. Others, a rabbit. Most of us can – after a few seconds – see both, once we look more broadly at the “big picture” or by turning our head slightly.
Let’s see how context affects our stress level. For example, the 5 p.m. deadline the boss gave you to get that report finished today. The more you think about that deadline, the more your boss starts to look like the closet-monster. Physical stress (the fight-or-flight response) might even be kicking in.
Put stress in the proper context. Ask yourself “Is my life literally in danger if this report isn’t in by 5 today?” Remember the fight-or-flight response is your body’s way of getting ready for physical trauma. Take a few deep breaths and remember you’re not really about to fight for your life here. Be in charge of your body’s stress response (more on that later). In other words, turn the light on full blast and see what colour the dress really is. There is no monster hiding in the closet.
Think about positive outcomes rather than negatives. Rather than thinking “If I don’t get the report done the boss will be furious”, think “If I do get the report done the boss will be really happy and I’ll celebrate in some small way; wonder what I’ll do as a reward tonight?”
This ability to re-frame stressful situations is a key to handling stress better.
In a session at the relaxation centre your body goes into a state of physical relaxation that puts you in a positive frame of mind. Then, you can naturally re-frame stressful situations and rehearse positive outcomes. This trains your mind to go from seeing just the “dress”, or the “monster” to having a bigger picture and seeing things in context. Repeated sessions help you to develop this skill and take control of your body’s stress response and feel less stressed every day.