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Perception and How It Can Be Used as a Coping Skill


Adapted from an exercise by Donald A. Tubesing, PhD, MDiv, and Nancy Loving Tubesing, EdD., Structured Exercises in Stress Management, Volume 2.

“Beware,” the soothsayer says to Caesar through Shakespeare’s pen, “Beware of the Ides of March!”Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

Thunder and flashing lightening…everyone lookout, beware, danger! When Shakespeare penned the phrase it was only foreboding because the actor made it so. Now-a-days, just those words can strike dread in the hearts of some folks. Recited in tones of doom, and thanks to a few hundred years of history, it can plunge listeners into a dismal mood. In Shakespeare’s version the worst happens. Caesar is murdered by two of his friends on that day. “Et tu, Brute.” We fear the worst might happen to us, too.

Looking at it on one hand it is a dark and dismal threat. On the other hand, it is simply an indication of a date in the middle of March. Why does the same phrase strike people so differently? Because our perception is different. It isn’t the words themselves that engender fear, but the emotions that we ascribe to those words.  Some folks feel a sense of dread. For others, the Ides of March is simply March 15th and it doesn’t disturb them at all. April 15th, maybe, but not March 15th.

How we see and feel things, or our perception of them, greatly affects our stress level. Perception can be defined as “a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.”

Attitude Adjustment Hour

Try this exercise that demonstrates the role of perception in the management of stress and helps us practice making conscious shifts in perceptual patterns. You can use it by yourself, or gather a group of your friends or family.

Discuss or journal about the following:

  • Any life event, major or minor, can become a cause of stress if we view it as a threat. Stress is our reaction to whatever dangers we see around us. Perception is the key to stress management. Our stress level is determined by the way we label events (perception). If we see safety we remain relaxed. If we see danger we fight back with stress.
  • Incredible as it sounds, most of our stress comes from between our ears. If we don’t like it, we can get rid of it, by changing our mind.
  • It’s no phonier to be “Pollyanna-ish” (seeing the rosy side of very tough problems) than it is to be cynical (seeing the negative side of positive opportunities)
  • At any given moment, we always have numerous perceptual options available to us – many ways to view our situations. Our choice of viewpoints, to a large extent, color the quality and feeling tone of our daily experiences.
  • In our society, attitude adjustment hour is synonymous with drinking alcohol. Yes, alcohol does alter people’s mood. But true attitude adjustment comes only from making the choice to change our perception. This exercise offers an opportunity for you to practice the skill of seeing your life from many different possible viewpoints.

1.    If you are able, find a friend or family member to join you in the exercise describe his or her day to his or her partner. If you are doing this early in the day, describe yesterday. If you are doing this alone, journal about the questions and answers.

2.    Now you will be challenged to “adjust your attitudes” by re-describing your day using one of the viewpoints listed below. Take turns using one of the eight possible attitudes listed below. If you are doing this alone, write it down.

  • A situation comedy – a big joke and the joke is on you.
  • A Greek tragedy – as if you were meant to suffer and you surely did.
  • A soap opera – of heroic proportions, with all the subtlety, intrigue, and drama of daytime TV.
  • A fairytale – perfectly positive and enjoyable, everything is rosy.
  • A bore – no expressions, dull, ho-hum, nothing much interesting
  • An athletic contest – using sports metaphors as you “drive for the goal,” “take a time out,” “strike out,” “hit an ace,” and so on.
  • A pitiful mess – you’re lousy and you mess everything up, and your life stinks.
  • A trap – everyone’s out to get you and you have a lot to complain about.

3.   Repeat step 2, two or three times, allowing the opportunity to review your day from several perspectives.

4.   Consider the following:

  • How did the changed viewpoint alter your feelings?
  • How do you normally choose to tell your day’s story?
  • What difference would it make in your life if you regularly sat down at the end of the day for an “attitude adjustment hour” in which you told and retold your day’s story from different perspectives?
  • How can you incorporate the principles of perception into your day right while it is happening?
  • How can you incorporate the same principles after the fact?

Stress: A Matter of Perception

Stress can be caused by events, which will produce different reactions in each of us. Events are not good or bad within themselves, but our needs and experiences add context to them. The personal lens that we see events through can make them stressful.

Every day you face events that you either see as threatening or non-threatening. Which one it is depends on the perception habits you’ve learned.  These are learned from a young age; you absorb them from people around you. If your parents fought about money, you’re likely to feel finances are stressful. There are many factors that change your perceptions growing up, like your peers, your geographic location, economic status, etc. If you judge an event as threatening, you’ll feel distress. Your unique perceptions change the amount of threat from an event; seeing a large dog may not threaten you at all, but may cause distress for your friend who was bitten by a dog. The amount of distress from an event will change, depending on the level of value you place on what’s being threatened. Maybe you don’t feel threatened by having to miss going out with friends for a work function. But if it were your best friend’s birthday you were missing for work, you would probably feel bad. Perception habits are hard to change, but being aware of them can help you reduce your distress.

  • What kind of perception habits do you have?

Kicking Your Stress Habits