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The Thing Isn’t Really the Thing. The Thing is Actually the Reaction to the Thing. (Huh?)

How to Beat Anxiety

When it comes to the emotional and mental impact of depression, anxiety, and stress, the thing has never been the thing. No, the thing is the reaction to the thing. That’s a constant you can count on. But does the same apply to the physical impact? Let’s take a look…

These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se.               Dr. Nancy L. Sin

Life had been going well. Family, home, work – all was in great shape. Life was good, at least until that day at work.

Out of nowhere, your boss called a team meeting. According to the big-dog, business hadn’t been at all good for some time and expenses were going to have to be cut. The boss said layoffs aren’t expected, but everyone was going to have to knuckle-down.

You said to yourself, “Wait, what? I’m going to be laid-off?” “But life has been so good. We can’t afford me being out of work!”

‘Course, your selected listening got you into trouble. That led to faulty perception. And that, in turn, led to your totally avoidable overreaction. Which, by the way, took you to new heights of depression, anxiety, and stress.

My word, how the cognitive distortions flew!

Hey, we’ve all been known to have a handful or two (or 10) of these perceptual/reactionary nightmares. Just kind of comes with the mood and anxiety disorder briefcase and territory.

So we know the emotional and mental impact of depression, anxiety, and stress are driven by misperception and overreaction.

But what about the physical impact of same?

The Physical Application

Have you ever said something like – “Dang, years of depression, anxiety, and stress hits have to be wreaking havoc on my body!”

If so, health researchers from Penn State and Columbia Universities have conducted a study you’ll find interesting. The results of their work were recently published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

The research team believes how we perceive and react to stressful events is more important to our health than how frequently we encounter stress – all those years of hits.

There’s that perception and reaction biz again.

The team had no problem acknowledging that stress and negative emotions can increase heart disease risk. But when it came to why, they took pause.

The team noted that one potential pathway linking stress to future heart disease is dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. So maybe it’s about an individual’s normally self-regulated nervous system derailing.

In an effort to clarify, Penn State’s Nancy L. Sin, PhD and team decided to determine if daily stress and heart rate variability – a measure of autonomic regulation of the heart – are somehow connected. Oh, we need to know that heart rate variability is the variation in intervals between consecutive heartbeats.

According to Dr. Sin…

Higher heart rate variability is better for health as it reflects the capacity to respond to challenges. People with lower heart rate variability have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.

By the way, this is an important study because very few have examined the relationship between heart rate variability and daily stressful events.

The Study Goings-On

The team analyzed data pulled from some 900 participants of a national study. Age range was 35-85. Included were eight consecutive days of phone interviews and results from an electrocardiogram.

So during the interviews, the participants were asked to report the day’s stressful events. And they were asked to rate how stressful each event was by choosing “not at all,” “not very,” “somewhat,” or “very.”

The participants were also asked about the day’s negative emotions – anger, sadness, nervousness, etc.


On average, participants reported having at least one stressful experience on 42% of the interview days, and these experiences were generally rated as “somewhat” stressful.

Now, how ’bout this?

The team discovered that the participants who reported an abundance of stressful events weren’t necessarily the ones who had lower heart rate variability.

No, it didn’t matter how many, or how few, stressful events a participant faced; those who perceived the events as more stressful – or who experienced a greater spike in negative emotions – had lower heart rate variability. And that equates to a higher risk for heart disease.

Dr. Sin, in summary…

These results tell us that a person’s perceptions and emotional reactions to stressful events are more important than exposure to stress per se. This adds to the evidence that minor hassles might pile up to influence health. We hope these findings will help inform the development of interventions to improve well-being in daily life and to promote better health.

That’s a Wrap

So what do you think?

Be it the emotional, mental, or physical impact of depression, anxiety, and stress, the thing has never been the thing. The thing has always been (mis)perception and (over)reaction.

Are you buying?

I’d say making a purchase right about now will help you sidestep all sorts of depression, anxiety, and stress. (This stuff is always in the conversation, huh.)

Oh, here are two Chipur articles on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy that’ll come in handy: REBT Grandfathered CBT. OMG! Part 1  REBT Grandfathered CBT. OMG! Part 2

A shout-out to Penn State | News for the study scoop.

Want some more? 669 Chipur articles. Check-out the titles.

  • JessiRae Ino Pulver-Adell

    Great article Bill! I’m always telling myself something along the lines of “the thing isn’t the thing- it’s the thing that’s making me do the thing.” It’s not cutting/addiction/over-shopping/etc.’s fault, it’s the depression from unaddressed X, Y & Z.

    Great insight– I’d like to see a follow up article on specifically addressing the thing behind the thing. I think it’d be a great read :) .

    • JessiRae’s in the house! Welcome back, and thank you for your visit – as always.

      All sorts of “things” floating about in our lives. But THE thing will always be our thoughts/beliefs. They drive it all. Right? And that’s why the links to those two articles on REBT are so important.

      I’ll see what I can do about an article addressing the “thing behind the thing.” In the meantime, those REBT articles – and anything here or elsewhere re cognitive distortions/restructuring – will help a lot.

      Thanks again, JessiRae. Always glad to have you…

  • totally agree and i find i actually thrive on quite a bit of stress, that challenges are antidepressant and i usually own that my reactions are just that, reactions. i am still very stuck when dealing with abuse; i get “triggered” as we say in PTSD lingo. i am learning to walk away and not engage in these areas but it ain’t easy. that terrified reaction feels almost hardwired.

    recently in reading joseph burgo who i think is an md, on kindle,The Narcissist You Know, his advice when in contact with dsm type narcissists like those that have abused me life long is the same as lawyer’s in speaking of my recent run in with vicious bully landlords, narcissistic to the nth, is “run like hell!” and that from a doc! so i stay away as much as i can from these triggers. i admit it: i am attracted to this charm/abuse cycle. so i circle around to your article. it ain’t them; it is my reaction. still i do not need to stick around them and further my distress. hard work indeed.

    did have a recent small victory. in speaking with my narcissistic ex, he whining via text that he could not pay his rent. as i lounged in my relaxing bath, i felt the concern and old attraction well up. getting out of the bath i called him as he loves to text rather than talk. when i began to ask what he was trying to do for himself and that i certainly could not help, he became automatically enraged. i said see there it goes again (the abuse) and hung up on him and fell out of addiction a wee bit more. proud of myself.