Categories:Anne's Blog
Anne Hooper

Dr Kenneth Pelletier tells the story of a heart specialist colleague who consulted him about a severe heart murmur.  Having run every physical test on himself that he could think of, without producing any answers, the heart specialist had finally turned to his colleague in behavioural medicine.  Could stress be the culprit?

During the consultations, he and Dr Pellatier identified that the most severe problems occurred when the specialist and his wife were experiencing physical intimacy.  Specifically when he wanted his wife to touch him, he would have episodes of illness. These allowed him to be touched and cared for without sex.  In other words the ill man felt extremely stressed by sexual activity.  When Dr Pellatier helped the couple find other ways to be physically intimate, his heart problems cleared up and he needed no further medication.

This is a classic illustration of not just how stress can affect the body but also of how, for reasons that may remain hidden, it’s possible to stress ourselves. The heart specialist had always possessed the option of offering or asking for other types of intimacy.  But he didn’t use it.  And that is an important point.   Most people are familiar with the idea that there are outside stressors which affect, in the long run, the ability to cope with physical health.  (See list below.)  What is a less familiar idea is that stress (not stressors) is something men and women inflict upon themselves.  We may be pre-disposed to being ill with stress because we have been subject to some awful life events.  But it is not the event itself which is the stress – it is how a person reacts to what happens.


How we react may not just be governed by common sense.  New research on the brain has shown that some people are born with a brain difference that pre-disposes them to be timid.  A child with the neurocircuitry  that makes it cry when their mother leaves the room may actually find quite ordinary situations threatening.  However not everyone who is predisposed to go through life feeling super-vulnerable will necessarily remain so.  The great good fortune of childhood means that brains are still so able to grow that teaching experiences can have a lasting, and positive result.

A study of infants known to have this predisposition showed that one in three of them already managed to learn courage by the time they attended kindergarten.  Observations of the children in their homes made it clear they improved because the parents took time to teach them carefully and encouraged them to go into the world and try for themselves.  It was parents who over-protected the children and did not teach them how to deal with anxieties who confirmed their youngsters fears, making things worse. Further observation showed that some children improved later as well provided they had been supplied with methods of dealing with difficulties.


There is a Safety First teacher’s aid that gives children (and adults) a very clear idea of how to deal with difficult and stressful situations.  This goes:

Red light:

1.     Stop, calm down and think before you act

Yellow light

2.     Say the problem and how you feel.

3.     Set a positive goal.

2.     Think of lots of solutions.

2.     Think ahead to the consequences.

Green light.

6.     Go ahead and try the best plan

How many people are themselves ‘grown up’ timid children, longing to manage the world better and feel good in themselves?  We know now that timid adults have more problems dealing with stress – their brains have not helped them learn how.  Yet psychologists believe that it is possible, even in later years, to learn coping methods. Israeli specialist in crisis therapy, Nira Kfir, teaches three special factors that influence how well you may manage.


A Priority is described as the emotional structure you create in your mind as a tiny child that lets you feel OK.  Little children create these by identifying four main negative feelings and then developing defence systems against them.  Of course they don’t know this is what they are doing but nevertheless the process does go on in the unconscious.  The negatives are:

1.     Rejection:  The fear of not being wanted or appreciated, of being avoided.

2.     Insignificance: the fear of being unimportant, worthless, meaningless.

3.     Ridicule: The fear of humiliation, of appearing stupid, inept, or foolish.

4.     Stress:  the fear of conflict, unrelenting pressure, danger.

These ‘impasse’ situations lead to the child creating their own methods of coping. The following is a list of those methods ( Priorities) which grow out of the negative experiences.  Although most people will recognise aspects of all of the Priorities within themselves, there is usually one that is dominant.


1.     Pleasing:  To avoid rejection, pleasers seek constant acceptance and approval and can be very self-sacrificing in their efforts to secure them.  “I am meaningful and therefore can survive only if I am loved and appreciated.”

2.     Moral superiority:  To avoid insignificance, morally superior types continually attempt to influence others by high achievement, leadership, even martyrdom.  “I am meaningful and therefore can survive only if I am better, am wiser or know more than others.”

3.     Control:  To avoid ridicule, controllers anticipate and control themselves and situations.  They prevent the possibility of suffering embarrassment.  “I am meaningful and therefore can survive only if I can control my life and the events of life that surround me.”

4.     Avoidance: To avoid pressure and stress, avoiders function as reactors rather than actors in life.  They specialise in unfinished business and unresolved problems and live as if in a temporary state.  “I am meaningful and therefore can survive only if I  am left alone, unpressurized and free to move.”

The only if’s are important because they unconsciously control people and prevent them from reacting to a stressor in any other way than with the Priority.