Penelope Perri, MSW, Certified Coach
It’s hard to talk about stress without stressing people out. We often hear about how stress is bad for our emotional and physical health, how it hijacks our productivity and our relationships. We are told of the importance of self-care and then feel like we’ve just had another thing added to our already overscheduled lives. This article will offer a different approach to stress, using small but powerful tools to interrupt the stress cycle as it happens, before it blooms into overwhelm.
Let’s start by setting the scene of how stress occurs. First, it’s important to differentiate stress itself from our stressors. Stress is the physiological response created in our body when we perceive stressors in our environment. Stressors are the perceived demands and threats we experience in that environment. We often respond to these perceived threats or demands by trying to eradicate the stressors — externalizing our focus to all that is outside of us. We ruminate, talk about, and expend a lot of energy trying to problem-solve the things we cannot control. This of course is a recipe for more stress.
Our sense of control is central to our experience of stress. Stress stems from our own appraisal of our level of control and our ability to cope with the situation around us. In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown writes, “We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.”
We cannot control many of our stressors. But if stress happens inside our thinking – in our appraisal of the environment and our power within it – then the most effective place to intercept our stress is in awareness of, and subtle changes to, our thoughts. Keep in mind, this is the opposite of the brain’s default reaction when stress occurs. When we feel stress, we want to spring into action so we can control all the people and all the things “out there.” Paradoxically, if we can resist reactivity and redirect our attention back inward to our thinking, this is where we can profoundly shift our experience.
Take, for instance, our thinking about stress in the first place. It’s easy for us to layer stressful thought on top of stressful thought, as illustrated in this example of default thinking in times of stress:
Thought 1: “I’m so stressed about ___________.”
Thought 2: “Why did this have to happen?”
Thought 3: “I can’t handle this.”
Thought 4: “What’s wrong with me?”
It’s easy to see how an unchecked thought pattern sends us spiraling into more stress and negative emotions. Researcher Kelly McGonigal, in her book, The Upside of Stress, argues that stress is actually a signal of so many positive things in our lives. We feel stress because we care. Stress is, so often, an indicator that we are in the process of doing hard things, because we have full lives – rich with meaning and purpose, and things we hold dear. A subtle shift in the way we narrate our experience of stress itself can have a profound impact on our initial experience of stress and set us up for a more positive train of thought.
From there, knowing that stress is linked to our sense of control, directing our thinking to that which we can control is critical. Our brains are like heat-seeking missiles: whatever we choose as our focus – our brain looks for evidence and information to support that idea, both consciously and unconsciously. This is why seemingly harmless questions, like “Why can’t I handle this?” can send us spiraling and generate more stress.
Conversely, we can send our thinking and our nervous system into a positive cycle by asking ourselves high quality questions. Just as you throw a stick for your dog to “Go fetch,” questions direct your brain to go after information. Here are some quality questions to steer your brain toward productive, empowering thoughts.
- What is within my control right now?
- What is the “next right thing” I can do?
- What’s most important for my attention right now?
- What is “good enough” for today (This one is great for recovering perfectionists!)
- How do I want to show up in this situation?
- What is outside of my control – what can I let go of?
- How can I show love to myself and others today?
You’ll notice that many of the words in these questions create constraint – temporal and otherwise. Constraint is a powerful way to bring our thinking back from overwhelm into a small, manageable container – perhaps labeled “Today” or “Right Now” and “What I Can Control”. When we are in overwhelm, our brain pinballs from past to present to future, wanting to grab hold of something, everything, all at once. This ushers in more overwhelm. Using high quality questions turns the focus away from overwhelm gives your brain some much-needed guardrails.
The next time you feel stress mounting, try this ten-minute exercise.
- Sit down and silence distractions. Write or type out all the thoughts you notice. Thoughts are just sentences in your brain, passing through like a parade. Don’t censor, judge, or worry about language, just get everything out on paper or into a document.
- Look back over what you’ve written, and circle or highlight only the facts. Facts are concrete, tangible, provable. Notice how much of our thoughts are often made up: mind reading, predicting the future, spinning story lines. As Brene Brown says, we “rarely have enough data to freak out.”
- Pick one or two of the questions from the list above to ask yourself. Write out the answers, or simply let your thoughts follow that lead. Repeat the questions as needed. Let these questions be the GPS for your thinking for the coming minutes, hours, or day.
Slowing down and redirecting our thoughts is not our brain’s natural response to stress. It will not feel easy at first, but it is a practice worth cultivating. By coaching your brain to focus on what you can control, you will be more effective, more connected to what matters most to you, and more able to steer clear of the overwhelm.
Penelope Perri, MSW, is a Certified Life Coach with a practice in Concord. She helps individuals move through challenging transitions and has created a course to help leaders and professionals overcome burnout. Learn more at www.penelopeperri.com.