Getting to the Heart of What Stress Is

The center of a stressful experience is worth exploring. That’s what The Work of Byron Katie invites us to do.

What Is The Cause of Stress?

If you ask people what causes stress, you’ll often hear answers like this: my job, my spouse, my kids, a difficult situation between friends, my health, my money, etc. Because we experience stress in specific contexts, we tend to assume that the situation is the cause of the stress. 

This is confirmed by the fact that when you remove yourself from the situation, or if the situation changes, then the stress goes away. We, therefore, assume that the stress is caused by the stressor. In fact, we often equate the two: stressor = stress.

But This Does Not Explain All Situations

Why does the same difficult money situation, for example, make one person have a nervous breakdown while another person is hardly bothered by it? 

The difference is that one person has different thoughts about the situation than the other person does. For example, one person may be thinking, “This is to be expected. We just have to cut back on spending a bit now until there is more money again.” There’s not much stress in this thinking.

But the other person may be thinking, “Oh my God, I knew it wouldn’t last! I’m screwed. Now, I’m going to lose my house. My father will think I’m a failure. I’ll lose my family.”

Same Stressor, Different Thoughts

This makes it clear that the situation is not the real cause of the stress. It’s the thinking that makes it stressful. One person’s thinking makes the situation seem manageable. Another person’s thinking makes it seem impossible. One person feels okay. The other person feels hopeless. 

This is the power of thought. 

In fact, you could be in a completely non-stressful situation and still get stressed if certain thoughts are there. For example, you could be sitting on the beach enjoying the warm sun with no financial problems at all in your life. But if the mind is thinking, “I could lose the money I have,” then you could be miserable.

The Next Logical Conclusion

The next step of logic is this: “If thoughts are what causes stress, then I need to get rid of my thoughts.” This sounds logical but is not practical. In my experience, the only time I am without thoughts at all is in deep meditation, which doesn’t last too long. 

Eventually, I have to come out and eat, or go to the bathroom, or sleep, or live. Thoughts are an integral part of living, so to get rid of thoughts (if it were even possible) would leave me without any ability to act.

So what to do if I want to be stress-free?

It Is Possible to Have Thoughts Without Stress

Thoughts seem to be the cause of stress (certainly more than situations are). But when I look even closer, I find that thoughts are actually not the cause of stress either. 

For example, I may be in a challenging financial situation, and I may have the thought, “Oh my God, Losing this money is going to be the end of me.” That situation and that thought certainly appear to be stressful. But consider this.

If I believe that my thought is true, “Losing this money is going to be the end of me.” I am super stressed. But even if I have the thought, if I don’t believe it, there is no stress.

This Points to Something Deeper

It is not my thinking that causes my stress but my believing in what I’m thinking that causes stress. I lend power to my thinking when I believe it. When I believe my thinking, it sweeps me away like a wave and carries me out to sea. But when I don’t believe my thinking, it has no power over me. It’s like watching the waves come in and out on the shore. It’s not scary.

I can have crazy thoughts but, if I’m not believing them, where is the problem? It’s like entertainment. “There I go again! Gotta laugh!” Having crazy thoughts is just what the mind does. I don’t have to change the mind. I can’t change the mind. But I can still experience peace if I’m not believing everything I think.

The antidote to believing is questioning. That’s how The Work of Byron Katie works.

The Work of Byron Katie gives an opportunity to experience this kind of peace in everyday stressful situations by inviting you to question what you think. When you go through these simple questions and allow space for your own experience to rise up to meet them, then no situation and no thought can remain an obstacle to peace for long.

Join Us for Inquiry

Every week, I offer free Open Sessions. Bring your stressful thoughts to question and your questions about The Work.

And consider diving deeper early next year as we start the year off with a Virtual Retreat and The Work 101 in January.

Have a great week,

“To believe a thought is to exist in an imaginary world, however real it may seem.” Byron Katie, A Mind at Home with Itself

Further reading: How To Debunk A Belief

About the author 


Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.

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