How thoughts can drive stress

In my last blog I suggested that one of the biggest causes of stress and anxiety

lies in how you are thinking. This needs a bit more exploration…

The starting point is a simple, but incredibly important idea – that how you feel

is actually driven by the thoughts that are going through your mind. There is a

simple way of demonstrating this.

Let’s suppose that two people are sitting in a room. One of them is terrified of

spiders, the other isn’t. Neither of them know how the other one feels about


Then a little spider crawls across the table between them. How will they react?

The one who isn’t scared of spiders will probably just shrug. It’s a spider. So

what? The one who is scared is spiders will back away, might shout out or

scream, might get the other one to get rid of the spider.

So, both people experience exactly the same ‘event’ – a spider crawling across a

table. But they react in totally different ways. Why? Because they are thinking


Whenever something new happens in our environment we do a mini risk

assessment. We don’t realize that’s what we are doing, but it is there nonethe

less. The person who isn’t scared of spiders does a realistic risk assessment – ‘it’s

just a spider, that’s not a threat to me.’ But the person with a fear of spiders

(arachnophobia is the technical term) is thinking something like ‘’Aagh….a

spider…..I’ve got to get away from it.’

They key point here is that it isn’t the spider that is the important bit. It is how

you think about the spider that really matters.

Linking this in to stress and anxiety you can see the same process at work.

Imagine two men A and B, who work in two different accountancy firms in the

City (we’ll make them men just for simplicity). Imagine that A and B are working

on similar projects and both are asked, at very short notice, to produce a detailed

report to be ready the following afternoon.

A is a good with pressure. He isn’t prone to panic and knows that by getting his

head down and doing some long hours he will be able to get the report done in

time. B, however is much more prone to stress and anxiety. B starts thinking in

the panicky way that psychologists call ‘catastrophising’. ‘Oh my God. I’ll never

get this done in time. They’ve told us there might have to be some redundancies

in my department. If I can’t do this I’ll be out. I won’t be able to pay the

mortgage…….etc. etc.’

Just like in the spider story, A and B are facing an identical pressure, but they are

thinking very differently about it. Thinking in the realistic way that he does, A is

not very likely to get stressed. B on the other hand, with his panicky thoughts, is

much more likely to be a candidate for stress and anxiety. So once again it’s not

really the pressure they have to deal with, but how they think about the pressure

that is causing the stress.

It’s the thoughts that are the problem. And on this there is much more to be


How thoughts can drive stress