Explanatory Styles and Their Role in Stress

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Your explanatory style affects your life in ways you may not realize. It can minimize your stress response or exacerbate it. It can keep you feeling safe in socially dangerous situations, or endangered in relatively safe ones. It can contribute to your motivation or leave you feeling more vulnerable than ever.

What, you may wonder, is an explanatory style? This term refers to how people explain the events of their lives. When something happens in our lives, our explanatory style is part of how we process it, the meaning we attach to it, and how we assess it as a threat or a challenge in our lives. It's part self-talk, part self-perception, and it affects your stress levels in multiple ways.

Aspects of Your Explanatory Style

As we explore how your explanatory affects your stress levels, it helps to know what an explanatory style encompasses. There are three facets of how people can explain a situation that can lean toward optimism or pessimism:

  • Stable vs. Unstable: Is the situation changing across time or unchanging across time? Do you expect things to get better or worse? Or do you expect them to stay exactly as they are for a long time? This can make a difference in how stressful something seems. If you are taking a stressful class in school, it would help to know that the class will be over in a few months whereas a stressful job may be something to deal with for years or even decades. This can affect how stressful the situation feels.
  • Global vs. Local: Is the stressor universal throughout one's life or specific to a part of one's life? A good example of this is the feeling of having "good luck" or "bad luck." If you feel yourself to be unlucky, one negative experience may seem like an omen that more bad things are to come. Likewise, if you attribute a poor performance at work as being due to something global like a perceived inability to do the job well, one failure may seem like a sign of more failures to come, whereas someone who views one poor performance as being a sign of a bad day or lack of sleep—something more local and less global—that one failure would be easier to shake off.
  • Internal vs. External: Is the cause of an event as within oneself or outside oneself? If you are having a difficult day and you see it as being "your fault," you'll feel more stressed than if you see it as being due to factors other than you. Likewise, when you are facing conflict with others, seeing the problem as being rooted in something that is "their problem" rather than "your fault" can help you to take things less personally and feel less hurt. (If you face many people have the same complaints about you, it helps to look at what they are saying to assess whether there is something you may want to change, but generally, it helps to know that many of people's complaints can have more to do with them than with you.)

Explanatory Style and Your Stress Levels

Explanatory styles affect how we perceive the world, which can affect our experience of stress as well as our reactions to our stressors. If we have a positive explanatory style, we may feel less stressed by challenging experiences because a positive explanatory style can minimize the perceived severity of stressors—they seem like they're not such a big deal, will be over soon, are not our fault, and will not necessarily recur. Negative explanatory styles tend to create more stress in life and can make our stressors feel more threatening.

As you may have guessed, optimists tend to have more positive explanatory styles—ones that minimize stressful situations as unstable, local, and external and take credit for positive experiences as being more stable, global, and internal. Pessimists tend to see things in the opposite way, which can make stress seem like a bigger deal than it may need to be, and expands stressful feelings.

Explanatory styles can be altered with attention and practice. Learn to recognize your own cognitive distortions and practice cognitive restructuring techniques. Doing so can lead to a change in explanatory styles from a negative explanatory style to a more positive one.

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