The word stress has taken on a life of its own these days and for many has become a stress inducing word itself. Over the past couple decades, health professionals have made the damaging affects of stress well known. Consequently, much attention shifted to limiting stressors in our hectic day to day lives. Stressors like work/life balance, ﬁnances, annoying people, business travel, raising kids, retirement, etc. can take their toll. Techniques to reduce these like time management, ﬁnancial planning, sleep, diet, etc., have proven beneﬁcial. However, this focus still misses the number one source of stress for most people. That source is our own minds. We are going to discuss the never ending chatter of the thinking mind and a three step process that can signiﬁcantly diminish the negative impact on our health.
I want you to think about the stressors in your life. What situations or people really set you off. Take a few moments and consider your primary stressors right now… Just thinking about some of these can begin to raise your blood pressure and incite anxiety. Right?? Now, observe what just happened. You thought about your stressors and you began to feel their impact. The reason is our brain and body react to what is being created by our mind. Our minds also have a tendency to create cognitive distortions (making mountains out of mole hills) that spark the stress response unnecessarily. If a person is in a clearly perceived present moment danger, their instinctual stress response will take over and help protect them. However, most of the time we are not being confronted with a clearly perceived present moment danger or threat, yet our mind sends the signal for the stress response to be activated. We tax our bodies with stress hormones produced by automatic thinking and then blame people and situations for making us feel a certain way. This is why focusing solely on external stressors has limited affect. We spend our time and energy trying to control something we often can’t, the external world and have never been taught how to take back control what we can, our internal worlds. This is a powerless cycle that does untold mental and physical harm.
The bottom line is our minds are responsible for the vast majority of stress many experience in life. So, let’s stop thinking life is stressful and we should be good, right? While this can be helpful with small stressors, the difﬁculty is that often thoughts come to us already laced with emotion. Whether it’s an external stimulus or automatic thought, they enter our conscious awareness prejudged as “good” or “bad”. We feel the emotion at the exact same time we become conscious of the thought. The result is a feeling or emotion that just “is” and because it is, how can it be wrong. That person is annoying, travel is stressful, my partner doesn’t appreciate me, etc. These are no longer opinions from a limited perspective, these are now fact. The story begins to take shape and then we lose ourselves in it by becoming a character in our own story.
So, if thoughts and stress happen simultaneously, what is the best approach to handling the negative consequences of stress? To answer this we need to look at a study challenging whether it is the stress itself that does the damage or our response to stress. This study is explained in a Ted Talk by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist. She demonstrates that according to the study, stress was only damaging for test subjects if they believed that stress was bad for them. It used mortality rates as the metric following test subjects throughout their lives. Those experiencing high amounts of stress and who also believed that stress was bad for them, had a 43% increased risk of dying than those who experienced little to no stress. Those experiencing high amounts of stress, but who believed stress was not bad for them, had mortality rates no higher than those that were experiencing little to no stress. Subjects were able to nullify the harmful affects of stress through cognition or belief. This is because they treated stress as a friend, rather than an enemy. By accepting or even embracing the stress as something helpful to them, they were able to avoid the negative health consequences that were the result of resisting the stress emotion by believing it was bad for them.
Here is Vision Pursue’s 3 step process to dealing with stress:
- Completely embrace the stress emotion. No matter how uncomfortable it is. The emotion is not your enemy so don’t turn it into one.
- Recognize that your brain is releasing chemicals causing you to feel the way you do. This feeling is not you and is caused by chemicals in your body.
- Notice the world around you and get back to the present moment. Step outside of the story and get back to life which can only ever happen right now.
Make friends with the stress. “Embrace to Erase” the damaging impact of resisting stress in our lives. The emotion will pass through you much quicker and you’ll be able to get back to life faster by practicing these simple steps.