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Stress happens to good people, not bad people. It happens to strong people, not weak people. It occurs now, but can be traced to your past. Trying to be a better person – more successful at work or helping others – will exacerbate rather than eliminate your stress.

Those are some lessons from a lifetime of psychiatry that Tim Cantopher picked up, before retiring recently from Britain's Priory Hospital and moving to his wife's native United States, where they settled in Charleston, S.C. He believes it's vital we rid ourselves of misconceptions about stress-related illnesses and the stigma associated with them.

In his experience, weak people don't tend to suffer from stress since they are selfish, manipulative, give up easily when faced with obstacles, or simply don't care about those challenges. It's good people, determined people, strong people who take responsibility for fixing problems and end up suffering. "Stress doesn't make you ill. You make yourself ill by trying to fix the unfixable," he said in an interview. "You want to make everything better but can't. You are trying so hard – stop beating yourself up."

Usually it isn't what is happening that is causing stress in your life. He insists it's what you fear is going to happen in the future. And that anxiety traces back to childhood – parents, bad teachers, bullies, or traumatic life events – that led to fear dominating your life. Those people and incidents teach you that you're no good. And so you keep striving to fix everything, help everybody, and prove your worth.

The solution? Therapy may come to mind given his profession, but he offers a simpler option. "Kindness keeps you well," he writes in Overcoming Stress: Advice for People Who Give Too Much. Inside every person suffering from stress, he insists, is a frightened child. And you have the ability to nurture the child within. But he usually sees the reverse, people treating themselves with harshness they wouldn't display to somebody else. "I'm no good," they mope. "I'm selfish."

Instead, show yourself kindness – and convey it to others who are dealing with stress. Respect them. Understand them. Don't tell them to "pull themselves together." Don't insist they join you for a good time. "Metaphorically, you need to put your arms around them and say, 'Poor you. I'm willing to listen.' It challenges the internal narrative that they're no good," he said in the interview.

There are many precipitants of stress, and he begins with the deification of change in our society. "I have seen massive research that change is an injury. Surgery is an injury as well and sometimes we need it. But we don't seek continual surgery, and if we have frequent, purposeless change, it creates problems," he said.

New bosses want to recreate the workplace in their image. It makes them feel good. He compares them to dogs in a new back yard urinating to mark off their space. The result often is needless change. Change should happen slowly, by osmosis, after careful consideration, and only be carried out when necessary.

While change is an external stressor, often the problems come from within – ideas we hold that aren't viable. A key one is the belief that nothing should go wrong. If it does, somebody should be punished. So if a company messes up, somebody should be fired. But what if we mess up? That fear increases stress in our lives. While bad people can evade scrutiny, we're in the open, worried we might get caught, so desperate to avoid a goof. "But things do go wrong. We all make mistakes," he said.

His psychiatry practice was filled with physicians, all victims of the urge by governments and business today to get more for less. In health care, the result has been to cut funding while increasing the demands on practitioners. Stuck in the middle of this more-for-less prescription were the physicians scrambling to keep up and, of course, not make a mistake – combining the two stressors.

Handling conflicting needs is also a major source of stress. You have to be the perfect parent, shine at work, and make sure you see your lonely or ailing mother a few times a week. But you can't cope with all those conflicting needs. You need to make choices rather than trying to be ideal on all fronts. "You may have to tell your mother you'll only visit once a week. The kids may be in private school now but may need to be put in public schools so you can leave your toxic job. There are choices all the time. But my patients don't see them. They assume things have to be the way they are at the moment," he observes.

Communication problems also make his list. They come on many fronts, but foremost is the fact women and men tend to have very different communication patterns, with men fixated on fixing the issue under discussion and women focused on feelings. Each wants the other to be more like them. "While 'men are from Mars and women are from Venus' is a cliché, I see it all the time. If you want your spouse to be like you, then you have to be gay," he said.

And, of course, a lack of work-life balance leads to stress. Too often we are off-balance, going to an extreme. Exercise is healthy but exercising 10 hours a day can hurt you physically and prevent you from fulfilling other important aspects of your life. So check if your life, in all its dimensions, is balanced. And, more generally, be alert to the causes of stress he cites and the internal psychological dynamics that make you susceptible.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter