Although outside factors can contribute to stress, often it's our interpretation on an event that leads to our state of mind. Examining our internal dialog and re-framing how we think of an event is often the key to feeling better.
This is called positive thinking or cognitive re-framing. It involves monitoring our internal dialog for unrealistic or faulty thoughts and changing them into more realistic thoughts.
This can be challenging to do because our mind is in constant chatter and we are simply used to it. The reward, however, is worth the effort. Tailoring our thought patterns into more positive yet realistic thoughts can really improve the quality of your life.
Have you ever set a time to meet with a friend and they came a little late? I think this has happened to everyone.
What went though your head?
If your friend had stood you up in the past you might think “she doesn't like me”, “she always does this”, “she's so undependable” or “I can't believe she did this again”.
Your stress level begins to rise and you begin to feel all wound up. When your friend comes in 5 minutes late and tells you she got stuck in traffic you realize that you're so tense that you are not even hungry. Your lunch hasn't started out very good has it ?
Why do we “flip out” like that?
In the 1950's Albert Ellis, PhD introduced what is known as rational emotive behavior therapy (one of many varieties of cognitive-behavioral therapy) designed to change negative thoughts and behaviors that lead to stress. He came up with the ABC's of stress:
Activators- These are the facts and events (friend showing up late)
Beliefs- beliefs are our interpretation of the situation (she doesn't like me)
Consequences- emotions and behaviors that result from the beliefs (anger, stress)
A + B = C
You can't get to C without first going through B and I am happy to inform you we can control B. By recognizing and changing illogical or flawed beliefs into more plausible ones, we can change how we feel about an event and have a more appropriate response.
For example, what if we'd have considered traffic as the cause of the delay, or being caught at work? What if rather than assuming the worse we called her cell phone with an open mind? This certainly would have elicited a different physiological affect on our bodies. I'm sure we would have approached the meeting with our friend with much more positivity.
We don't control others, so we are unable to alter the activators, but we can impact our own beliefs about an event. In other words, we can choose our reaction to an event.
Our minds can be very tricky, so at first it may not be easy but you can do it!
What Do We Watch For?
Exaggerations- taking an everyday run of the mill issue and blowing it up to a monumental issue. Example: Being late for work for the 1st time and thinking my boss is going to fire me.
Unrealistic Expectations- this “should” have happened, or “must” happen, or “ought” to happen, etcetera. Example: “I should make six figures by now.”
Absolute Thinking- Seeing things in black or white or “always” and “nevers”. Turning relatively narrow facts into overly broad generalizations. Example: “She's always late.” or “He never remembers to brush his teeth.”
Personalizing- making everything about you. Blaming yourself for situations beyond your control. Example: “I always make him so mad. If I could just change the way I ...” or “If I had just been there when ...”
How Do We Correct Our Thinking?
Our emotions are the key to catching negative mind chatter. Every emotion we feel is triggered by a thought.
Let me repeat that.
Every emotion is triggered by a thought. Make sense?
When you feel sadness, the feeling was preceded by a sad thought or sad interpretation.
When you feel stress, the feeling was preceded by a stressful thought or interpretation.
The key is noticing how you feel, then just think back to the last thing we said to ourself and change it up to a more realistic and positive thought.
“Oh my gosh, I am going to be so late to work. I know my boss is going to fire me.”
Wow, my stress level just jumped 100 points! Notice the change in the body. The tension, heart rate, sweaty palms. Question this thought. Is it unrealistic? What might be more realistic?
“It looks like I am running about 5 minutes behind schedule today, I will leave 10 minutes earlier tomorrow. I'm sure the boss will understand as long as it's not a habit.”
Much more realistic right? We were also able to generate a solution for the next day.
The trick is finding the thought that triggered the emotion and changing it to a more realistic and positive one.
Sometimes our stressful thoughts may be realistic and escalated for a reason, so don't discount all uncomfortable emotions as they can assist you when appropriate.
You wouldn't want to change your stress response when you see a black bear on the horizon. You need to recognize the threat and begin your careful retreat from the danger.
Learn to tell the difference. Begin questioning your thoughts to see if you are living by unrealistic “shoulds” or shouldn'ts”. Question old beliefs patterns to ensure they make sense still. You will be surprised what you will discover about yourself when you begin listening. Get ready for an exciting and empowering journey to a more complete you!