WHAT IF STRESS WAS LIKE A CYBER ATTACK?

When I finally started to take on, to confront my own stress, before it did any more damage, instead of approaching it from a medical or wellness perspective, my instincts immediately kicked in and I viewed it as a risk that had to be managed. All those years of cybersecurity were suddenly paying off in a much different way.

I found myself imagining that my brain, which suffers the bulk of stress damage and risk, as my critical infrastructure, the place that needed the most and first protection.

And all the things that had the potential to cause me stress, I imagined those as cyber attacks. And while I initially thought of them all as external, again, the cyber analogies kept kicking in when I realized that many of the threats were insider threats. Self-imposed stressors.

So I just went with that flow, looking for any cybersecurity analogies and comparisons and seeing if they could work, if they could be applied to managing the risks of stress. I started appropriating and adapting different security techniques that have become second nature to me over the years.

For example, one of the biggest challenges in cybersecurity is dealing with the overwhelming number of daily attacks and alerts. It means that not only do you not have time to investigate each attack thoroughly and decide whether it’s real or false, serious or trivial, but attackers use that knowledge to sneak real attacks in through all the noise. So in my mind, I had to separate the real attacks, the real emotional risks, from all the noise.

So that’s when I came up with what I call my DAM system. I created just three categories of stressors. And that’s one of the most important fundamentals about managing stress. That stress is just the relationship between stress and stressors, and the space, the perimeter, that can separate the two.

Stressors being all the things that have the potential to cause us stress, and stress simply being what happens when we allow those stressors to take root in our minds. If we prevent them from taking root, those stressors never become stress and we end up living a stress-free or at least a stressed-less life.

In my case, I only needed three categories.

  • Personal stressors, things like health, relationships, finances and so on.
  • Work and career stressors.
  • And self-imposed stressors, features of my personality that I had accepted but never really challenged. Things like impatience, procrastination, rumination, intolerance, cynicism, unreasonably high standards, never wanting to fail and so on.

Once all those stressors were in their categories, I applied another security technique that I had developed years ago. I put those stressors into three more categories, the DAM system:

  • Dismiss, stressors that were just so silly and unreal I was wasting my time even thinking about them and I could just instantly dismiss them.
  • Accept, meaning they were very real but they weren’t that harmful and I could easily learn to live with them.
  • And finally, manage. Stressors that were very real, very harmful, and I simply couldn’t afford to ignore them.

Stressors in that third category became what are also known in security as APTs – Advanced Persistent Threats. The complicated, the serious, the relentless threats and risks, and the ones that can’t be ignored. In your life it could be anything from a chronic health issue, to an unhappy relationship, to crippling financial problems.

I talk about it in the course, but it was an incredibly powerful exercise and in ways I didn’t expect. It helped me to narrow down to just a handful what the real and really important stressors were and so make it much easier to focus specifically on what I needed to fix.

And it was also a great opportunity to take a thorough and top-down view of my life, all the stuff around me, the good and bad of it. And most important, the idea of metacognition – of thinking about and challenging my thoughts and thought processes. Which turned out to be such a powerful tool in identifying and managing stressors.

And through that it also introduced me to me, helped me to see sides of myself that I had never noticed or paid attention to before. Each stressor became a thread that led to another story and another after that.

I even started imagining the stressors, and their relationship to me, in terms of a heat map. I could easily visualize, almost by color, where the greatest concentration of stressors were and where they were coming from.

And even today after all the lessons I’ve learned and techniques that I’ve developed, I still think in that frame of mind. I’m constantly vulnerable to these versions of cyber-attacks but if I protect myself with rings, layers of defense and keep those defenses constantly up, chances are I’ll simply deflect most of these attacks automatically.

Now every time a stressful event or thought emerges, all these techniques automatically kick in, to rationalize the stressor, pick it apart, and dismiss, accept, or figure out how to manage it.

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