Everyone has stress in their daily lives — but how we manage that stress can help us when we need the extra help. Everyone has the ability to manage their stress productively. Stress management consists of strategies that increase our awareness of which situations cause us stress and provide ways to cope with that stress. Stress management techniques have been used to help people who live with medical illnesses and/or those who experience depression and anxiety, as well as other difficulties. Frequently we experience stress over situations in which we have no control. However, you can control how you handle the stress — and how you cope with stress can either increase or decrease the stress symptoms.
Become Aware of Your Own Stress Response
Everyone has situations in their life that causes them to be more “stressed” than usual. Some people don’t like crowds or public speaking. Some people don’t feel comfortable in new situations, and some people don’t like arriving late to appointments. Everyone has their own triggers. There are also those external events that are perceived as exceeding our capacity to respond to it, in the way we want — those kind of events tend to cause the most stress. Increasing awareness of our stress response helps our own ability to change the stress response to a more productive, less stressful response in those difficult situations. Knowing what makes you feel stressed and how your body responds to it is the first step in fighting effects of stress.
Awareness of Automatic Thoughts
Increasing your awareness of the situations you are most likely to have automatic thoughts (a habitual way of thinking about stressful situations), identifying those thoughts (e.g “I hate being late for X,” “I always do poorly on job interviews,” “I am just not good at Y”) and which automatic thoughts pop into your mind most frequently are helpful so you can break the habit and get a new internal dialogue with yourself. Your thoughts and feelings shape your actions and can impact confidence in yourself and your self-esteem. You know that little voice in your head you’d love to quiet but doesn’t stop? Unfortunately, the automatic thoughts we have tend to be negative or distorted (e.g. “This always happens when I come here,” “No one ever asks me to go do Y”). Before we experience any event, we have to give it meaning. If our perceptions about the event are appropriate and accurate, our mood or feeling will match the situation. If our perceptions are inaccurate, then our mood may become distorted or sensitive. This explains how sometimes people can feel bad for no good reason.
An example of how our thoughts impact our emotions and our physical bodies is the person who wears their thoughts on their face (not their sleeve). Have you ever known someone who may not have to say anything, but you know that they are upset or sad or angry because of their facial expression? They are wearing their thoughts and their feelings on their face — you may not know what their little voice is saying, but you may suspect how the voice is making them feel by their facial expression.
When you feel any emotion — sadness, anger, or joy — you also experience physical changes the same time you are having the thoughts. So when you experience an emotion, you “feel” the emotion, think the automatic thought (e.g., I’ll never get this job”) and have a physical body response (e.g. heart racing, or sweating, or tight jaw muscle, etc.). All of these components are are important because they perpetuate one another.
Awareness of Physical Responses to Emotion
Can you remember back in grade school when someone took their nail or chalk to the chalkboard and scratched it? (Yes, some of us actually had teachers that used chalkboards not computers…) Or how about… biting into a fresh lemon thinking it was an orange? Well, if you made any type of face while reading this, you know what it is to have a physical response to an image or feeling. But if you’re not convinced, try this exercise right now. It only takes a few minutes.
Sit with your eyes closed and think about someone you love very much. Pretend they are next to you — see them, hear them, hug them. Imagine why you love them, what they look like, what you do to express your love for them, how they speak and what they say that you love so much. Think about how you express that love with all five senses. Do that for three full minutes with your eyes closed and notice your body and how it feels.
Are you smiling?
Do you feel tense anywhere?
What do you notice about your body right now, holding that image in mind?
Now take another three minutes and picture someone you’ve had a conflict or difficulty with sitting next to you. Imagine them next to you — see them, hear them, imagine how they walk or speak, imagine what kind of facial expression they have when you interact with them. Think about how you feel when you are with that person. Imagine them and the feelings you have when you are with them for the same three minutes.
Now ask yourself:
Are you smiling? Do you feel tense anywhere? What do you notice about your physical body now?
This is a simple example of how our bodies respond to images and feelings. Knowing how you respond to stressful situations helps you break the pattern. Expect that changing the habitual little voice in your head will take time. It doesn’t happen overnight. Now is the time to take those negative and distorted little voices in your head and write them down. Write down those situations that cause you stress — write what the “little voice” in your head says — and then write a more balanced counterpart. For example, change “I never do as well on written tests” to “If I do my best, it will be good enough.”
Changing habitual thought patterns isn’t easy. Neither is coping with stressful situations. In our next article about stress, we will discuss different types of coping — which ones are productive and which ones… well, could be better. Remember to be compassionate with yourself. Change is a slow process, under the best of circumstances.
Antoni, M.H., Baggett, L. Ironson, G., Laperriere, A. August, S. Klimas, N, Scheniederman, N. and Fletcher, M,.A. (1991). Cognitive behavioral stress management intervention buffers distress responses and immunological changes following notification of HIV seropositivity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59 (6), 906-915.
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