Is Stress Only Bad?

I have been listening to Andrew Bernstein’s The Myth of Stress while driving lately. It’s a four-year-old book that makes the case that stress is an unintended consequence of humanity’s unique penchant for abstract thinking. According to Bernstein, external factors do not cause stress — our thoughts about those external factors do. Therefore, the title is a misnomer: stress is real (or, at least, the manifestation of it), but the cause is in our heads.

I started listening to this book, conveniently enough, while stuck in an hour’s worth of traffic. Bernstein actually uses traffic as his first example of a common so-called source of stress and walks the reader through an activity designed to bring the mind of the person under stress back toward reality and away from statements like “there should not be this much traffic.” This is not done through meditation or passive acceptance, which is what I suspected, but through a written brainstorm on the likely causes of the traffic — overpopulation, not enough highways, poor urban planning, etc. — with the end result being a formulation such as “in reality there should be this much traffic at this time because ___”

It sounds robotic, and he explains and defends the structure ad nauseum in anticipation of the reader’s reluctance to use it. He insists that it is not about submitting to unfortunate circumstances but coping with them by minimizing the “counter-factual thoughts” about those circumstances that produce stress. He adds that negative thinking is not necessary for change.

This last part is where I start to take exception. I have read plenty about “counter-factual” or ’emotional’ thinking in the past, and there is nothing novel in questioning the consequences of submitting to the ‘ego’ — ask any Buddhist or the numerous Westerners who have adopted Eastern philosophy, repackaged it, and brought it to bookshelves in Europe and the United States (Eckhart Tolle is who comes to mind in particular, but there are also the Hare Krishnas and others). Although Bernstein should cite the sources of his inspiration and not pretend that his “Activinsight” methodology is based solely on a cursory understanding of neuroscience and his own powers of observation, a bigger concern is the way in which his own counter-factual statement upholds the status quo.

While it is self-evident that some change can occur without will or intention, Bernstein’s assertion that all negative thinking or stress is irrelevant to effecting change is a dubious one. I cannot contemplate a stress-free revolutionary. Those who wake up happy and calm every morning do not go on to overthrow a government or fight the power in any real way. Their own writing reflects this. Gandhi may seem like an exception to this, but his autobiography reveals a man who struggled to accept everything from the sanitation practices of late nineteenth century India to marital sexual relations. As further evidence that negativity is not always counterproductive, there are studies showing that too much happiness produces negative consequences and, ultimately, unhappiness because people who reach a certain level of happiness do not make enough effort to change anything in their own lives. In other words, Mr. X could use Bernstein’s methodology to take away the stress of living in an abusive household, but perhaps if he stressed over it instead, he would reach a breaking point, move out of that abusive household, and be much happier as a result — whether he continued to allow stress to win him over or not.

This is not to argue that Bernstein should be discounted entirely. His approach actually helped me deal with traffic better in the moment and realize the futility of pounding the dashboard. Nonetheless, as he points out himself, stress is the brain’s response to danger going back to our prehistoric past and was/is necessary to our survival in certain contexts. It may not be necessary to our survival to pound the dashboard or curse at other drivers while caught in a traffic jam, but it will ultimately be necessary to our survival, given our dwindling resources, to fight for a transportation system that is better for the environment, less individualistic, safer, and more efficient. In this sense, some stress is good.

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