It's happened a million times. You're in line waiting to buy your goods. You are in a rush and have got to go!!! But the line takes forever, sending you closer and closer off the deep end. By the end of the ordeal your stress levels have primed you to be fully ready to body check the next poor soul who cuts you off. Have you ever wondered about the people who go through that same maddening experience and are in just as much of a rush, but instead decide they're going to vibe out and listen to their music??? How can that be?
Well friends, that's because of the power of the mind. Last week we talked about how our response to stress is shaped largely by how balanced of a life we live physically. But there's another side to that and that is the mind. If we can understand how our brain thinks and computes these stressful situations, perhaps then we could start working on reversing these negative thought patterns. Hmmm... intriguing.
So let me just throw something crazy out there: the way you perceive a particular situation determines whether or not it is stressful for you. What!?! Oh yes, it's true. Richard S. Lazarus, one of the leaders in psychological-stress research, taught that stress is not found in the situation or in the person but in the combination of them together. He believed your interpretation of a situation and the meaning you attach to the source of stress are responsible for the degree and intensity of your response. That means there is no such thing as a stressful situation. The stress is our interpretation of that event. In fact, you can actually create stress simply by anticipating a stressful event! We can inaccurately decipher a situation and our body goes into allostatic load even though it doesn't need to. This is especially true if you're living with chronic stress (body will actually respond stronger and more quickly). Lazarus outlined six beliefs we take that cause any event to become stressful.
So this means a situation gets stressful when:
- The demands of a situation exceed your ability to cope with it.
- Your judgement of a situation is inaccurate either because you overestimate what the situation demands or you underestimate your ability to cope.
- You exaggerate the consequences of not being able to cope with a situation.
- Expectations, beliefs, or fears keep you from using your coping skills.
- You lack an adequate support system.
- Inhibitions and fears keep you from using your support system.
So when we get into a situation, we subconsciously decide if the situation is stressful or not to us. And depending on our coping skills and support system, we will then take control or it will seem to take control of us. Also if stress is a part of our everyday life, we will begin to increase our negativity, hopelessness, and pessimism. And the more stress you're under, the more negative you will think, and then again the more stress you will feel. Excessive pessimism stresses your body internally, because your stress response is triggered more often and stays switched on. Hopelessness decreases the resistance to stress and increases mental and physical vulnerability. When people think they are powerless to influence events, they do not act to improve their situations, because they are certain of failure before they have begun.
The moral of the story is that our whacked out way of thinking can seriously cause harm to our body! Our beliefs define us even though their influence is often unconscious, and they often do not necessarily reflect subjective reality. The first step to combatting stress and learning to cope is to understand what we think about the world and what our self-talk is. In 1975, Psychologist Albert Ellis created a list of the most common misconceptions and core beliefs that can provoke a stress response. This list has grown over the years. This is a great list to print out and keep on hand to reference back to. Write down which numbers resonate with you:
- Demand for Approval: You measure your worth by how well other people treat you. You need the constant love and approval of people who are important to you.
- High Self-expectations: You are achievement-oriented and must be successful in everything you do. You demand a lot from yourself and have a hard time forgiving yourself if anything you do is less than excellent.
- Emotional Control: You are overly sensitive to the opinions and judgments of others. You allow what you imagine other people think of you to dictate your decisions, even if it means not doing or going after what you want.
- Dependency: You believe you are unable to cope with life by yourself and must depend on someone smarter or stronger than yourself. You feel powerless to solve your own problems and rely on others to take care of them.
- Helplessness: You think there is nothing you can do to solve your problems, whether they are of your own making or were caused by an external situation, and haven't accepted that the capacity to change is in all of us.
- Fairness Fallacy: You believe that the world and everyone in it must be fair and just.
- Avoidance: Rather than confront difficulties and responsibility directly, you avoid facing them.
- Discomfort Anxiety: You don't believe in rocking the boat or pushing yourself because you're not willing to risk pain and anxiety. This limiting attitude can keep you from doing things outside your comfort zone from which you could benefit.
- Perfectionism: You believe that there is a perfect solution to every problem. You think everything should work better or go more smoothly. You judge others with very rigid standards.
- Fear of Losing Control: When you are under stress, you fear that you're "losing it" or that you are going crazy. You fear you might have a breakdown and cannot imagine how to pull the pieces back together.
- All-or-nothing Thinking: No middle ground exists with this sort of thinking. Situations are good or bad, opinions are right or wrong, your efforts result in success or utter failure.
- Catastrophizing: The assumption that the worst will always happen fills you with dread and makes you doubt your ability to cope.
- Keeping the Negatives: You perceive only the negatives in a situation and ignore the positives. You obsess about bad comments and perceived slights.
- Magnifying or Minimizing: You tend to lose your sense of proportion. You inflate the importance of minor things. You blow up your weaknesses and minimize your strengths.
- Personalization: When something goes wrong, you feel you are totally responsible.
- Jumping to Conclusions: This type of crooked thing takes two forms:
---Fortune-telling: You are certain how things will turn out even if you have no facts to support your prediction.
---Mind reading: You think you know what other people are thinking, and it's usually negative about you.
- Emotional Reasoning: Your feelings, rather than the facts, dominate your interpretations.
- Hindsight: Though it's a normal part of the learning process to look back to learn from your mistakes, you are preoccupied with mistakes you made in the past, which limits your thinking and behavior in the present and creates stress in new situations.
- What-ifs: Focusing on the worst possible outcome can prevent you from assessing a situation accurately and determine a practical course of action. Considering possibilities is important but, if taken to an extreme, can muddy your thinking and prevent you from taking appropriate action.
- Egocentric Thinking: You feel the need to persuade others to believe what you believe. You want to influence what others think.
- Control Error: You either feel responsible for everything or you feel helpless to change anything.
- Heaven's Reward Thinking: You put others' need first, because you believe that you will gain your reward in the future.
- Unrealistic Comparisons: You compare yourself to others and automatically judge them to be smarter, more successful, happier than you are.
Your first step to reducing stress is to recognize how your assumptions and reactions contribute to or perhaps even cause your stress. You may learn that your core beliefs and thinking patterns are not necessarily reliable and can cause you to interpret a situation incorrectly or deal with it ineffectively. Most people can't even get to this stage. Introspection can be a scary thing and even sometimes painful. But the reward for this work is life-giving. It is worth it. Learning your automatic response to these events will begin to relieve this stress.
Since your stress responses are generated by your interpretations of events, cognitive restructuring eases stress by showing you how to evaluate whether your interpretations are valid or not. We're breaking habits and learning new ones!! So the key to our success is:
- Become aware of harmful beliefs and thought patterns. (Keep track! Have a journal? Great idea.)
- Dispute your automatic negative thoughts by considering a positive alternative.
- Consider effective new approaches to cope with the situation.
- Replace with healthy, affirming, balanced thoughts and beliefs.
It takes persistence and practice, but this method will allow you to replace negative, self-sabotaging thoughts with affirming, healthy ones that will boost your sense of well-being. And if this is a challenge to maintain, chat it out with a friend using this technique. It will help to bounce these ideas off someone and will help to build a support system at the same time! Killer!! And remember, dealing with your stress is mandatory. Many peeps think if they just pretend like it doesn't exist it will go away. Not so, friends. Researchers at Stanford University studied MRI brain images of two groups of people watching a terrifying movie in order to compare two methods of regulating emotions-cognitive restructuring or suppression of emotion. Cognitive restructuring reduced the intensity of negative emotions, while suppression of emotions actually increased the intensity of brain response. Did you hear that? Suppressing stress actually makes it worse!!
Sometimes the most helpful tactic to take towards cognitive restructuring is to ask these questions when you feel the anxiety building:
- How do I feel?
- What am I thinking?
- What core beliefs are influencing my perception of what happened?
- Are any cognitive distortions contributing to my stressful response?
- Do my assumptions accurately reflect what happened?
- Do the facts support my interpretation?
- Is there a more positive way to interpret the event?
- If I'm right, what is the worst that can happen?
- Am I underestimating my ability to handle the consequences of the event?
- What can I do to improve the situation?
Cognitive restructuring brings control back to the mind. Habitual patterns of thinking and negative, judgmental self-talk invite stress into our life. Awareness and then intentional living are going to be the tools to get us to a balanced life. Stress-hardy people are not frightened by change because they regard it as an opportunity to learn and to grow. They view change as a challenge that they want to confront and control rather than a stress to avoid and a chance to think creatively. In the end, you cannot avoid stress, but you can retrain yourself to eat healthy, workout regularly, get ample sleep, make choices to find peace during your day, create a healthy support system, and finally to restructure our thoughts during perceived stressful events. With your understanding of how your perceptions and physical well-being influence your stress reaction, you can now draw from your reservoir of resilience. And that my friends brings us to the grand ending of our journey into the world of stress. Now, together, we can say we indeed know how to keep it together. Live the dream.
McClellan, Stephanie, M.D., & Hamilton, Beth, M.D. (2010). So Stressed. New York: Free Press.