Becoming Thicker Skinned: An Executive’s Perspective On Stress Management

Herman Witte, PH.D.




Sixty to ninety percent of all visits to health care professionals are for stress-relatej disorders. This costs industries about $150 billion a year in terms of disability, reduced productivity and absenteeism. Health care costs in most major corporations are second only to salaries.


There is a great deal of evidence that we are awash in a sea of stress-related disorders. In 1979, the Surgeon General reported stress had become such a major problem that they set dealing with stress, particularly in the business sector, as a major goal for the 1990’s.




The best definition of stress is not being able to control your environment. Stress is defined as the response to the challenges life presents you. Stress is essentially upset. It comes in two forms, physical and emotional. Physical upset is a physical symptom, such as insomnia, chest pain or headaches. Emotional upset shows in the form of depression, anxiety or fear.


Both kinds of upset have one thing in common. They represent the loss of control. The more stress you have, the more you perceive yourself as not being in control. But it’s actually the other way around. The more you perceive yourself as not being in control, the more stressed you become, and the more emotional or physical symptoms you develop.






Stress can kill you. Stress chews you up physically. How can you tell if you are highly stressed out, perhaps to the point where it might affect your health? Well, how do you identify the nature of the beast roaming around outside if you never see it? You look for its tracks. High intensity emotions leave different tracks than low intensity emotions, and they show on your thinking, your health and your behavior.


There are four main indicators of stress:


  1. Emotional
  2. Mental
  3. Physical
  4. Behavioral

Some of the indicators of stress are very subtle. Your body might be trying to get your attention. Blood pressure may rise, or immune system depression may lead to infections. People who are physically healthy and come into stressful situations often end up developing symptoms of diseases, and even the actual diseases themselves. So how do you know they are stress related? These people will have high levels of stress hormones in their blood or urine. People with these kinds of problems can be treated without drugs by teaching them to become thicker-skinned. As their emotional intensity and duration diminishes, the symptoms remit and even go away completely.


The problem with physical symptoms as an indicator of being stressed out is that many of these changes take place below the level of your awareness. Some people can be wildly out of control physiologically without having any inkling of that fact. So, if physical indicators are not immediately available, what is the next best indicator of how stressed out a person may be? Behavior is a good indicator of stress because it is most visible. Behavior is a window into a person’s emotional life.


People have several false notions concerning the nature of the relationship between things that happen to them and their becoming stressed over it.


“IT UPSETS ME:” If you believe “it” upsets you, that means the things you perceive in life have some inherent ability to provoke an emotional response.


What are the consequences from that generic statement? You’ll feel depressed. What is in control of your emotional life if “it” upsets you? The “it” controls your life, not you. That has very serious emotional consequences. There is nothing more important in life than being in control. Losing control is a major fear of most people. If “it” upsets you, then for as long as that “it” is present, you will have to remain upset and out of control. If you go through life attributing emotions to events, you give up emotional control to those events.


What do people hate or fear most in a relationship with someone else? That other person exercising some control over them. What do people hate or fear most in themselves? Losing control. The most threatening experience a person can experience is the loss of control. The most exhilarating experience a person can have is being in control. How much control? Some people say total control.


Social science has found that about ten percent of the reasons why you get stressed about something has to do with the occurrence of the event to which you attribute that stress. Ninety percent of the reasons why you get upset about things are caused by your own self. Events don’t upset you. You upset yourself.


Events occur. You think about the event. Then you respond to your thoughts about the event. It’s not the event that is upsetting you but how you process the event. The level of your upset is connected to your level of personal resilience.


The next time something goes wrong, instead of telling yourself “that upsets me,” tell yourself, “I am getting upset” or “I am letting it upset me.” The difference between the two is more than just a word game. Your thoughts are the central problem in coping with the situation. The words you use and the language you have in your head are of paramount importance, “It upsets me” externalizes the source of your frustration, and gives up control to “it.” “I am letting it upset me” means Jam turning it on, and I can turn it off or down, but! am in control, If you understand the logic of “it upsets me” as being false, and “I upset me” as being true, then you will understand that nothing that you perceive happening has any inherent emotional significance. Everything you perceive is emotionally neutral. You attach emotional significance to the events,


BLAMING SOMEONE EISE: The second false notion is believing that your emotional upsets are caused by another person’s behavior, Any time you become angry at someone, understand that it is a direct and unavoidable consequence of your conviction that that person is doing “it” to you. If you believe this, at some point you are going to start blaming that individual.


If you find yourself in conflict with another person, you are much more likely to resolve the conflict if you attribute your upset to how you handle that person rather than to that person himself.


The only way you can control stress if somebody is causing it is to focus your attention on and control that situation. There are three variations on that theme:


  1. Avoid the person, and thereby avoid the situation
  2. Escape from the situation, and therefore from the person
  3. Eliminate the situation and therefore eliminate the person’s control over you through the situation


What is the problem with trying to manage stress by controlling its presumed cause? You can’t do it in many cases, such as economic turndowns, someone you love getting sick or dying, or even yourself getting sick or dying. Those three strategies do not always provide relief,




There are fundamental insights which people must have in order to deal optimally with stress or any other problem in their life.


The first insight is the cognitive approach to understanding and managing stress. Cognition refers to thinking. Thinking is self talking. Each of you is now thinking. If you were thinking out loud, it would be talking with yourself. Everyone engages in private speech or conversation. So the first approach to understanding and managing stress is through self talks.


What do you do when you find yourself in a highly stressed situation where you have no control over what you perceive the cause to be? The solution is a cognitive one, involving a re-thinking of the matter. It begins with examining closely the truthfulness of “it upsets me.” The idea that events cause emotions is the most deeply rooted irrational notion that people have, and that notion is independent of a person’s intelligence or level of formal education.


Implicit in the notion that “it upsets me” is that there is something about the nature of that event which produces the emotion. Life teaches that in response to any particular thing, people react differently. Instead of focusing on the “it,” you now focus on the nature of your coping response. If you believe that you upset yourself, you may also come to believe that the fundamental task of living is emotional control. Everything in life is secondary to learning to control your emotions. Because if you overreact emotionally, you will have little control of other things of importance in your life.


There are two ways to achieve emotional control. If you get upset, turn it off, or don’t get upset to begin with.


The second insight is language. Language causes stress. You misuse language, or you use language in an irrational fashion. Language is used to represent reality. You label things, and then communicate those perceptions to other people. So if language represents reality, it can also create reality.


Language contributes to how well you handle stress. You say, “Not only do I control getting upset, but I also control the intensity and duration of that upset.” There is an important subtlety embedded in that sentence. The subtlety makes a distinction between the existence of a problem, and whether or not it is a significant problem. The only thing which makes a problem a significant problem is its intensity and duration.


Therefore, the problem is not a problem by virtue of its existence, but by virtue of how bad it gets and how long it lasts.


The third insight deals with whether you believe the tendency to react negatively to stress is genetic or learned. Evidence proves that it is learned. As you get older, you become much thicker-skinned emotionally. You are far less likely to overreact as an adult than you were when you were an adolescent. Your genes have not changed. You are thicker-skinned for reasons of having learned something. That learning has to do with the development of certain attitudes which you know enables you to control your emotions.




Several books have been written on this subject. One book is entitled, If I’m So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like A Fake? Studies of well-functioning, highly successful people show that 70% to 90% of these people believe they are frauds. Inadequacy and insecurity, particularly among executives, may be extremely high, although you do not see that in their outward functions.

What is the impostor phenomenon? People with this problem have three characteristic kinds of thinking:


  1. They think they are conning other people into believing they are more confident than they really are.
  2. They attribute their successes, particularly in their business life, to anything else but basic intelligence. They tell themselves and others it was simply luck, timing, social skills or connections.
  3. They live in constant fear of being found out for the frauds that they are.


Other conflicts which are common in executives, in addition to the conflicts that human beings have by simply being human, are the fear of failure and the fear of success (which is also the fear of failure).


An article in Inilusny Week talked about the very common fear of success that occurs in many executives, which may lead to self-sabotaging behavior. For example: fear of not maintaining previous high performance standards in the same or a more demanding context; fear of having to pay too dear a price for success in terms of too great personal sacrifices; fear of becoming something that one is not. These people try to self-destruct, which is their way out of a situation in which they feel they aren’t in control.




A major research study was done with executives with respect to the characteristics of the hardy, resilient, well-coping executive. The study measured hostility or anger. This research was reported in a book called, The Distrusting Heart. In the book, a doctor by the name of Williams said, “Whether anger is expressed or not is far less important that whether it is habitually felt. However, there is also evidence indicating that anger held in is probably more destructive than anger expressed outward. So if you are saying, ‘Isn’t it good if I blow my anger out?’ it certainly is for you. The person whom you direct it at may end up making you pay a price for it.”


Years ago, an agency studied people immigrating to the United States from Europe. The prospective study tracked these people for many years. They studied the association of their emotional state with their health over the course of their life. They found those with the highest hostility levels were thirteen times more likely to die or be admitted to a hospital with heart disease than those with the lowest hostility levels.

In 1957, a study was done with 1,800 healthy, middle-aged men who worked at a Wesson

Electric Plant in Chicago. When they first enrolled in the study, they took a hostility test.

Workers with the highest hostility levels were found to have nearly two times more heart attacks or die from heart disease twenty years later than those with lower levels.


In 1983, a second study was done on a number of graduates of medical school. The doctors had taken this test at the time of their training 25 years earlier. Those with high hostility scores had five times more heart attacks, angina, or had died of heart disease than those who scored lower levels.


Cardio-vascular disease is still the major killer in this country. High risk factors that cause heart attacks are high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and being overweight. But these things explain only about half the reasons people develop heart disease. The other half have to do with stress. A person’s blood pressure will rise in reaction to stress. Hypertension is called the “silent killer.” Sixty million people in this country have high blood pressure, and one-third of them don’t know they have it.


If you have chronic anger, your risk for developing heart disease can be up to fifteen times higher than the person who is not chronically angry. Anger is an emotion which is not only uncomfortable to experience, and uncomfortable to have directed at oneself, but it can also kill you. A great deal of research has shown if you suffer from any chronic kind of mood disturbance, such as chronic depression and chronic anxiety, your risk for developing diseases of all kinds and dying early is significantly elevated over that of someone who does not suffer these symptoms. Depression is very common in the days, weeks and months before the onset of heart disease.


A book entitled, The Hardy EXECUTIVE cites an interesting study of some 250 executives with Illinois Bell during a time when a divestiture was taking place. The study was about change and stress-related illness from the CEO’s perspective. It found some executives were highly symptomatic. They had physical complaints and showed actual diseases. Other executives in exactly the same environment, faced with precisely the same changes, had far fewer physical complaints.


When they separated these groups into the good coppers and the poor coppers and gave them a variety of psychological tests, they found three qualities which characterized the tough, resilient executives. They called these characteristics the three “C’s.” These characteristics were challenge, commitment and control.


Highly resistant, hardy executives are people who view life as meaningful, who perceive challenges in life as very interesting, and involve themselves with zest in all they do. They commit themselves to the pursuit of these challenges with a great deal of energy. They perceive change not as threatening but as a opportunity for personal growth and development. They have an underlying feeling of being in control. They feel they have the ability to influence the course of events.



These same characteristics are found in people who manage to survive some of the most dehumanizing and brutalizing experiences that can be experienced in life.


A psychologist who was on the team that rehabilitated Vietnam POW’s wrote a book called, Winning Ljfe ‘s Toughest Battles The Roots of Human Resilience. This man writes of general research about the POW’s, and his own personal experience in treating people who have been subjected to the most severe kinds of trauma that can be imagined.


The book dealt with people who have been raped or subjected to incest, people who have life threatening illnesses or have suffered crippling accidents, and people suffering from devastating financial losses or disruptive family lives. Somehow these people managed to come out of those experiences emotionally unscarred.


What characterizes these people are the five C’s:


  1. They cultivate in-depth communication with their fellows.
  2. They have a deep-seated belief that they are in control of what goes on, with particular reference to their emotional reactions.
  3. They have the conviction that life is meaningful and purposeful.
  4. They have a clear conscience. If things go wrong, they know they did the best that they knew how, and they don’t guilt themselves, which would be extraordinarily self-destructive.
  5. They exercise a tremendous amount of compassion for other people. They engage in a lot of altruistic behaviors.


The striking thing about the POW’s who came back from Vietnam is that they, of their own accord, invested themselves in community activities. They involved themselves with helping people whose hardships were not nearly as bad as their own had been.


The two areas of research in this study are particularly interesting because both say much the same thing, and central is the issue of control. The single most important conviction that you need in life is that you control your emotional responses. If you overreact emotionally, you have done it. If you react well, you can also take the credit for that.



You may already possess the secret for being thicker-skinned, which is controlling your emotions, which again is the first task of living and functioning. Being thicker-skinned accounts for the fact that in continuing, unchanging problems, people’s emotional reactions cool off.


The ultimate reasons why people are thick-skinned has to do with certain attitudes. These attitudes are related to whether you are a demanding person or not. If you are a demanding individual, it means you get out of bed in the morning with the thought that things should go a certain way. This is called the “basic irrational primer.” The basic core irrational thought in demanding people is that life owes them something, and things should be a certain way.


The basic distinction is that some people demand things, which implies a 100% certainty. Other people expect things, which is only a certain probability. Now what is the basic difference between demanding something and expecting something?


There are two classes of words, demand words and expectation words. Demand words are the following: Should, must, ought to, have to, got to, need to, supposed to, and will.


By contrast, expectation words are the following: Wish, want, like, prefer, hope, would be nice. These expectation words are characteristics of a person who is thicker-skinned.


If you say your employees should be at work on time, implicit in that word “should” is that they will, in fact, do that. Whereas, if you say you would “like” them to be on time, that implies a certain flexibility that they may not be. If you demand that something occur, demanding sets you up for overreacting because it does not prepare you for something going wrong, If you expect something to occur, this prepares you for something going wrong.


That is a significant point. Are you more likely to overreact to something that takes you by surprise, or something you have prior knowledge of? You will overreact to the surprise. What is the language in your head that will enable soniething to take you by surprise? “Everything should go right” sets you up for overreacting. There is a dramatic difference between the language of people who overreact and of people who have better emotional control.


The following concepts of cognitive skills are used by thicker skinned people:


  1. They are more accepting of the fact that things may go wrong.
  2. They are more understanding when things do go wrong.
  3. They use more controlled language.
  4. They are more optimistic about being able to control things.




Stress is defined as a loss of control. The cause of stress is irrational thinking. The basic reason why people are out of control is because they attribute emotions to events. Control is ceasing to attribute emotions to events and taking responsibility for those emotions.


A fundamental principle which can begin to give you control is to change your language to “1 upset myself” and “I may not be able to avoid getting upset, but I can control the intensity and the duration.” Only if you believe that can you be in control. And only if you feel in control can you take risks and make change successfully.


How quickly can people change using these techniques? A study was done with officers of the Army War College who showed “Type A” behavior. The Army felt you had to be a Type A in order to get people to move and do things. The study showed them this was not the case. At the end of an eight-month training session, there were moderate or markedly profound changes in those officers who received Type A behavior counseling, as opposed to the control group who did not receive counseling. These changes were perceived by the officers themselves, their subordinates, their superiors and, more importantly, their families. Some of the changes achieved in the eight-month study were the following:


  • Increased understanding of others
  • Increased sense of humor
  • Increased tolerance and reduced hostility
  • Decreased participation in events that were of little significance, and improved ability to prioritize
  • Enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Improved evaluation of future events
  • Increased awareness of subordinates
  • Improved family relationships
  • Reduced hostility
  • Reduced sense of time urgency


Finally, what value is this in a corporate setting? The bottom line is the benefits that can be achieved with corporate health programs. Half of the major corporations now have in-house wellness programs. One-quarter of the corporations that employ more than 50 people have stress management programs. You can teach people skills that will enable them to cope better. As a result, not only will their health improve but also their behavior and performance.


Norman Cousins has written two books on this subject called, Anatomy of an Illness, and The Healing Heart. These books deal with his own personal illness brought on by stress, and deal with some things you can to do to avoid stress-related illnesses.



TEC – Becoming Thicker Skinned – An Executive’s Perspective on Stress Management – Herman White