Some Philosophizing About Psychological Stress

by Ben Best

(For health consequences, see Health Hazards of Psychological Stress.)


  2. ANGER
  4. GRIEF


In "philosophizing" I mean reflecting and speculating in a generalized way about the subject at hand. I make no claims of expertise although I believe there is some value to my insights. This philosophizing process is a foraging through my memories and thoughts in the hope of finding answers. To emphasize my disclaimer — this essay is an exploration, not a definitive thesis.

Psychological stress can be due to many causes, but the most common of those causes are anger, anxiety and grief. Conflict is also a frequent source of stress, but only because of anger, anxiety, and grief. The way of dealing with these stresses can be viewed as a philosophical problem, at least partly because psychological stress is subjective. I will philosophize about each of these in general, and then reflect on personal examples of psychological stress.

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Anger is a possible response to frustration, affront, pain, or loss. The personality and perception of the subject determines whether anger is the response. Anger is never a necessary response, no matter how much it may seem to be. Anger, like all forms of behavior, is the result of decision and choice. Anger is not a reflex — although it can easily appear to be — nor is anger a necessary response to a provocation.

If a person drops and breaks a glass in a restaurant the reaction could be shame or anger. If the glass was dropped because of bumping into a person who wasn't looking where they were going, the response could be anger at the other person's carelessness. Or the response could be irritation combined with forgiveness. Someone may feel different about damage caused to their car by a hurricane as opposed to damage caused by a vandal. Anger is a possible reaction in both cases — more probable when a human is causal (especially with malicious intent) — but anger need not be present in either case. Some psychologists claim that blame is never appropriate.

I believe that the emotion of anger evolved for a purpose: so that humans can be influenced by the anger of others and thereby "correct" the inappropriate behavior that gave rise to the anger. Anger is a mechanism for humans to train each other how to better live with each other. In the best case, an offense has been done and the expression of anger to the offender raises the consciousness of the offender to the offensiveness of the act to the point of causing regret — with resultant commitment not to repeat the offense. Anger under such circumstances is not only attention-getting, it is cathartic and emotionally satisfying to the person expressing the anger. If the offense is to a third person or wider social target, an audience may bring about justice even if the offender is without remorse.

Anger is not always the most effective way of changing the behavior of others. Moreover, where expressing anger is futile and self-defeating, the anger can be a source of personal stress — which adversely affects well-being if not the personal health of the angry person. Counting to ten is a well-known way for delaying the emotional response of anger for the sake of cooling-off and reacting in a more thoughtful manner. Where the provocation is by e-mail or intermittent communication, delay of more than a count-to-ten is both possible and highly advisable. "Sleep on it" is another common and helpful admonition. If a response is necessary, thought should be given to being persuasive for achieving objectives and solving problems rather than to means of inflicting retaliatory pain, which is rarely appropriate. It is worth remembering that we usually have little justifiable leverage to make demands upon others, and that others will need persuasive reasons for respecting our preferences.

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While anger is a possible response to past events, fear and anxiety are possible responses to anticipated future events. Fear is often distinguished from anxiety by greater certainty of the future threat. But the clarity or certainty of a future threat is also a means by which "normal anxiety" is distinguished from "neurotic anxiety". The adage to know what you can control and what you cannot control could serve as a guide for distinguishing productive anxiety from unproductive anxiety.

Worry is the thought process associated with anxiety. Anxiety and worry can be useful means to prepare-for and prevent undesirable outcomes (or to create desirable outcomes). But "neurotic anxiety" can be paralyzing, and prevent effective action. The tendency to imagine minor threats as catastrophic — and react to them as emergencies — is symptomatic of neurotic anxiety. There are real threats where individual action is of little immediate value, such at the threat of nuclear warfare/terrorism or global warming. Where there is little potential for effective action, the great majority of people would be well-advised to keep such anxiety at a low level. In many cases humor serves as relief from anxiety that is ill-defined until it is relieved by the humor. Anxiety over future cardiovascular disease or Alzheimer's Disease has a potential for individual action, but the results are not certain. Demand for perfection and certainty can be a defining criterion for neurotic anxiety.

Where anxiety is useful to prepare for future outcomes, the intensity of the anxiety is important. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, too little anxiety or too much anxiety results in worse performance than an optimal level of anxiety. High levels of anxiety can sensitize a person to become angry, including anxiety due to imputing a high level of urgency to achieving certain goals. High levels of anxiety are also often associated with anticipating possible loss & grief.

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Grief due to the death of a loved-one, the impending death of a loved-one or one's own impending death is a psychological stress. Loss of property or other things deeply valued can have a similar affect. As wwith anger, grief is a possible response to frustration, affront, pain, or loss. Grief can cause anger, but the obvious & objective futility of such anger will lead to acceptance of the loss. Guilt and remorse over past action can be viewed as lost opportunities, when not simply pain & shame. Anxiety is more strongly associated with impeding loss than with a loss that has already happened.

Diversions and entertainment may be temporarily therapeutic, but in my opinion denial is ultimately no more therapeutic for grief than it is for anger or anxiety. I believe that allowing oneself to fully feel anger, anxiety, and grief is acceptance of reality and the best way to work-through those emotions. Fully feeling anger does not mean fully expressing that anger, but fully feeling grief can and should mean crying or depression. Hopefully, grief is a wound that will eventually heal, even if scars must remain. Guilt is a form of grief that is harder to face and harder to heal, but I don't believe that efforts to repress or deny emotions are beneficial. Again, anger can felt fully and dealt-with without repression or denial, but also without inappropriate expression of that anger to others.

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I find that exercise is a very effective way to deal with anger, anxiety, depression, and grief — both from an emotional point of view and for relieving the health consequences of psychological stress. I also believe that meditation can be an effective tool for allowing oneself to relax and fully feel the stressful emotions — and to relieve the stress from those emotions through relaxation.

Jules Feiffer once commented that he regards most sociology as emotional autobiography. I make no secret of emotional autobiography in my philosophizing.

As a teenager I remember seeing some poor "hicks" who lived in a trailer driving about our town. Although I did not think that we were particularly rich, I am sure we seemed rich to the poor hicks. When I was riding with my father, one of the hicks spit on our windshield. My father became very angry, but I had no such response. I think part of the issue was that my father had more pride than I did. I was used-to abusive treatment by him and others. I sometimes pride myself on my lack of pride, although in some ways I am very proud. As a taxi-driver I often had insulting, abusive people as passengers, but I was keenly aware that they were simply expressing their personalities. I did not take it personally — I knew that they did not know me — and such people usually did not make me angry.

In addition to being a taxi-driver, pharmacist, computer programmer/analyst, and president of a cryonics organization (among other jobs), I was once a Teamster who drove 18-wheelers, as dispatched from the Teamster's Hall. On one occasion I was dispatched to drive a large flatdeck trailer that was parked in a huge puddle of water and mud. Before tying-down my load I decided to move the truck a few feet so I would not be standing in so much water and mud. But as I was getting into the truck, a manager started yelling at me to tie down the load. Rather than arguing with him, I stepped down from the truck and tied-down the load with him while standing in water and mud. The next day my dispatcher at the Teamster's Hall told me that I was not welcome to return to that company because I had been planning to drive the flatdeck without tying-down the load. When I am inclined not to reply to disparaging remarks made about me in front of others, I often reflect on the consequences of not defending myself simply to avoid a fight. I could have defended myself to the trucking manager with an explanation rather than a fight, but that is not so easy to do for disparaging remarks motivated by hostility. I must balance avoiding fighting with avoiding loss of reputation because of disparaging remarks. If I lose my reputation, I become powerless to achieve the goals I desire.

I remember walking down the street when I crossed paths with a woman and her big dog. The dog growled at me, but I did not take it seriously until the dog actually bit my leg and tore my pants. In the stunned shock of a hurt victim I exclaimed "He bit me!", but to my surprise she responded with a self-satisfied smile. I had a delayed anger. After the event I would fantasize grabbing a stick and smashing the dog. The anger was totally a response to her nasty attitude. For some reason I took it very personally even though I had never seen her before. I could not dismiss her nastiness as an attribute of her screwed-up personality as I would do with some of my nasty taxi customers. I am now removed from a desire to smash the dog with a stick, but this incident is an example that it is not so easy to be "philosphical" about provocations to anger. Strangers and familiars alike can make nasty remarks that I can sometimes shrug-off, but which at other times "hit my buttons".

A woman-friend of mine committed suicide. I only learned of her suicide years after it happened — and even more years after I had last seen her — but it was poignant news to me nonetheless. She and I had a certain empathy over our paranoid, easily-hurt (overly sensitive) personalities — although this also created problems for our relationship. We were somewhat like people living in glass houses who throw stones, and with guilt I feel that I was worse about that than she was. I had a girl-friend of sorts at the time (a relationship mostly based on sex, and to some degree on companionship), but that was not much excuse for my not doing more to express my love or relate more closely and more often with my woman-friend. My workaholic lifestyle (as always) left little time for relationships. (I have chronically elevated my work to emergency status upon which my survival is dependent. As a university student I was in a constant state of hysteria. But my workaholism isn't simply motivated by anxiety. I can get very excited about achieving my goals, and I derive a great deal of satisfaction from my accomplishments.) Nonetheless, her suicide was an undeniable statement about how she was feeling about life. I doubt that I could have ultimately prevented the suicide, but the suicide adds to the poignancy of my guilt for not expressing more of the love I felt for her. I know this kind of guilt is a common response to any death of a loved-one — and all the moreso when the death is a suicide — but this is the only experience of that kind that I have had in my life.

I have never married, and neurotic anxiety is partly to blame. There are many women I would not want to marry, and such women usually do not make me anxious. Women with whom I have been friends have not made me anxious. On the other hand, many women — especially (but not always) women to whom I am very attracted — make me very anxious. They make me so anxious that I make no contact or have actually broken-off contact simply to relieve the anxiety. For one woman to whom I was particularly attracted, I made a stupendous (and incompetent) effort to be assertive with her. The effort to triumph over my anxiety played a huge role in my assertive, but incompetent efforts, and over-rode my fear of rejection. Not being a victim of my anxiety became more important to me than success — and resulted in some of the incompetance of my efforts. A climax was reached when I actually was hostile to her because of her lack of clarity with me. I was demanding of her that she relieve my anxiety — to the point of becoming hostile over the matter. But I had the anxiety because of my attraction to her. This was a key emotional event in my life, because it made me unable to take my own emotions seriously. If I truly loved the woman, I should have loved her for who she is, and not made demands upon her because my attraction to her made me so anxious. She was magical in her passion and capacity for enthusiasm, which was somehow intimately connected with her anxiety and maddening indirectness. While I craved to be her love-slave, I ws at the same time terrified of losing myself (and my career ambitions) to her. I did not inspire her trust with my erratic behavior — often I broke-off contact with her simply to relieve my anxiety.

I have been accused of being "stand-offish", and I acknowledge there is justice to this accusation. The values of most people are alien to my own, just as my values are alien to them. My lack of trust for most people causes me to distance myself from them — and can cause me anxiety when they get too close. Nonetheless, there are only a few people who I believe have malicious intent toward me, and I know who they are. On the other hand, there are people that I trust and can "open-up" with.

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