Coping with stress – it’s not how you planned on spending most of your waking hours.
Yet stressful things happen to each of us every day that throw us off course, make us lose our feeling of calm, and make it hard to enjoy anything else.
If you’re like most people, you blame your stress – and the bad moods your stress triggers – on things like:
Your demanding boss
The bully at your kid’s school
The repair bill for your car
But here’s something that may surprise you: Research shows that your stress is not actually caused by the event itself. It is caused by your upsetting thoughts about the event.
So coping with stress has more to do with changing your thoughts than dealing with people cutting you off on the highway.
Coping with Stress Requires “Thought Control“
The next time you start to feel your temperature rise and your heart pound, try this simple technique to identify the real cause of your stress reaction.
The first two steps are pretty easy.
1) Write down a one-sentence description of the upsetting experience or situation.
(Yes, it really works better to actually write it down.)
2) Now write down a few of the upsetting emotions that you experienced. Try some of these:
Angry Hurt Frustrated Worried
Overwhelmed Embarrassed Helpless Disrespected
The next step may be somewhat of a new way for you to view the upsetting event.
3) Try to identify the thoughts that you were thinking when the upsetting event occurred, and write those down next.
For example, imagine some crazy driver cut you off. Your thoughts might have been:
- He almost killed me!
- That jerk should pay attention
- He obviously could care less if I live or die.
- He must think he owns the road.
You’re absolutely certain that this guy’s actions are the cause of your upset and stress! The truth of the matter is that your thoughts about what happened, not the actual event, are the main cause of your upsetting feelings.
Here’s the proof!
In reality, you don’t really know why that person cut you off on the highway. You can’t read his mind. So let’s imagine some possible thoughts that are just as likely to be true as the ones listed above:
- I was in his blind spot. He looked, but just did not see me.
- The 3-year old in the back seat just threw a sippy cup at his head (true story).
- He’d been trying to switch lanes for a while, so he wouldn’t miss his exit. No one would let him in – including me.
- He has a person in the car who is having a heart attack.
Now, if you’d had any of the above thoughts during this upsetting event, you would not have been as upset. You would have understood the driver’s actions.
So, it wasn’t really the event itself that made you angry. It was the story you told yourself after the fact – maybe without even realizing it!
This week, pay attention to situations that stress you. Choose just one of these situations, and spend a few minutes writing down your thoughts about what happened. This awareness of your “automatic thoughts” is the first step to learning to handle life’s challenges with less stress.