From the iCope book series by Anthony R. Ciminero, Ph.D.
As was discussed in the introduction, we mentally process all of our stressors like a computer. This processing often seems automatic and unconscious at times. Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to process events in a relatively negative ways that magnify our stress. What could be neutral becomes worrisome and stressful. What typically would create some distress now creates a much more intense reaction.
Some beliefs or values that we have learned in our culture from our parents, teachers, peers, and religious authorities, act as magnifiers of stress in just about all of us. Fortunately, we can change how we look at and interpret situations so that we do not overreact to stressful events. Rather than magnify our stress, we can learn to filter out some of its impact on us.
MENTAL HABITS THAT INTENSIFY STRESS REACTIONS
In order to become sensitive to how mental processes can contribute to your own stress, ask yourself if you fall into any of these common traps.
1. Do you tend to catastrophize or make things seem dramatically worse than they are? If so, you often see situations deteriorating or leading to tragic conclusions. You tend to exaggerate and blow things out of proportion.
2. Do you tend to see things in absolute terms? Do you think in an all or none fashion? If so, you would see things in black and white and have a hard time seeing the gray in between. This would lead you to “over-generalize” in response to certain events and your language will reflect this. Words like “never,” “always,” “everyone,” “no one,” and “impossible” are frequently heard.
3. Do you have excessive expectations of yourself and/or others? Thoughts such as “I must” or “you should” frequently will run through your mind and your vocabulary. Since these expectations are not realistic, you are likely to be disappointed in yourself and others. Depending on how you handle this, you might find yourself very angry or depressed.
4. Do you focus on the negative and tend to ignore the positive? If this is true for you, you may operate as if you have tunnel vision and your attention is likely to focus on what is “wrong,” “bad,” “terrible,” etc. You can easily spot flaws in people, places, and things. Your negative attitude may set you up to complain about most things, to be dissatisfied, and to get angry or depressed easily. This could cause further social problems for you.
These are four of the most common mental processes that create much of our distress. These processes are like any other habits in that they are hard to break unless we are highly motivated to change them. However, even when we want to change these mental habits, we still need a good approach to be successful. These methods will be presented a little later.
BELIEFS THAT CAUSE STRESS
In addition to learning what some of your mental habits are, you want to increase your awareness of whether you are magnifying your stressors by examining your specific beliefs and attitudes. We all are likely to have some strong beliefs that cause us much distress. Below are some common beliefs that are likely to cause extra stress. See if you identify with some of these troublesome beliefs.
I must have love and approval of almost everyone who is important to me.
I must be thoroughly competent at most things I do.
I blame others who treat me unfairly and see them as bad people who should be punished.
My emotions are controlled by external events and there’s little I can do about my emotional state.
I need to worry about bad or dangerous things that might happen.
My past experiences must continue to affect me so strongly that I cannot change how I feel or react.
I need to have someone on whom I can depend and who should take care of me.
The world should be fair and when it isn’t, I must be upset.
These beliefs have been described by psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis as being essentially irrational. This does not mean that the thoughts are “crazy,” but that they will increase your stress. As such, they are major culprits in causing you more stress than you need to experience. It should be noted that these just happen to be some of the most common beliefs in our culture that are stress producing. Each one of us can have our own individual beliefs that also magnify our reaction to certain events. Each of these beliefs serves as a magnifier of stress, and it would be to your benefit to modify those beliefs. Fortunately this can be done, and by learning to challenge irrational beliefs, you can diffuse much of the unwanted stress you encounter.
If you exhibit any of the four troublesome thought processes (catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, expecting too much, or focusing on the negative), or strongly hold to any of the major irrational beliefs, you will want to use the following procedures to diffuse your stress reactions. Once you have some practice, these methods of “rational self-talk” are powerful and will be extremely helpful in managing you stress.
YOUR NEW LANGUAGE
Now that you are more sensitive to the fact that your thoughts and beliefs about a stressful event can magnify your reaction, you can begin to diffuse any irrational or negative thinking. These types of thinking patterns are probably going on throughout your daily activities. Since they are likely to be somewhat automatic and unconscious, you can become more aware of them by asking yourself some questions whenever your stress level changes. For example, when an event occurs that increases your stress noticeably, ask yourself what you are thinking about the situation. What am I telling myself? Is this stressor triggering any of my irrational beliefs? Are some of my stress producing mental habits such as catastrophizing or overgeneralizing kicking in?
Blank Stress Analysis Charts that can help you become more aware of your stress producing self-talk which in turn will allow you change it are available at http://www.iCopeWithStress.com. Make several copies of the charts, and whenever you notice a significant stress reaction, record your thoughts and your reaction in the left column. You then try to challenge the stress-producing irrational thoughts with more rational self-talk. As you get in the habit of noticing any of your irrational or negative thinking, you will be able to begin to learn a new language. This language produces less stress because it keeps things in perspective – it keeps us more rational. This new language is represented on the right hand column of the chart. Here, thoughts and statements about the stressful event are likely to be more rational and positive. Many of these statements directly challenge and dispute any irrational thoughts that were identified. This does not mean that tragic, painful, or upsetting situations will feel good. However, what it does mean is that the event will not be made any more stressful than it has to be. Your stress might still be elevated, but your new way of thinking can reduce the stress level and keep the emotional reaction to a minimum. Instead of feeling so angry and outraged about an event that you are ready to react violently, you might instead feel frustration and resentment. Rather than getting seriously depressed, you might feel only saddened by the situation. Keeping things in perspective can help keep your anxiety under control rather than having it escalate to a “panic attack.” An example of some old and new thinking is shown on the sample chart at the end of the chapter. Use this process on a regular basis to see how well you can translate your thoughts into more rational statements.
The key here is learning a new way of thinking – essentially learning a new language. Our old language that magnifies our stress can be so strong that it will take a lot of patience and practice to learn the new one. Just as if you were learning a foreign language you would go through stages where the translation process is awkward and cumbersome. You have to consciously think of the correct way to say something and then translate from one language to the other. This is also true with learning how to talk rationally to yourself. Over time, you will begin to speak fluently if you continue to practice. However, anyone who has taken a foreign language in school will recall that when it was not used regularly we could barely speak that language. This will also happen with the language of rational self-talk. You will need to use it regularly in order to be successful in developing your coping skills.
A QUICK REVIEW
Here are a few general reminders about talking rationally to yourself. Take a few seconds to think as rationally and positively as you can whenever you are stressed.
• What is making me so stressed?
• It is probably not as bad as I think.
• I’ve handled situations like this before.
• I can calm myself and feel better later.
If these thoughts and the rest of the iCope strategy are not controlling your stress effectively, practice the disputing and challenging skills that you used on the Stress Analysis Charts. Make your statements specific to the exact stressor you are facing. Again, the goal is to keep things in perspective so that your stress is not exaggerated unnecessarily. Remember you are still going to feel some emotional reaction, especially if this is a significant event.
With regular practice you will become proficient enough to use these skills. Over time you will begin to encounter a wider range of stressful events that you can reinterpret with self-talk. Like other skills, the more successful you are in controlling your stress the quicker you will be able to use these methods.
You now have the major techniques for mentally or psychologically controlling your stress. In addition to maintaining your other skills (self-awareness and relaxing physically), remember these general principles of the cognitive methods covered in this chapter:
• Talk calmly to yourself when a stressor occurs.
• Try to keep the stressful event in perspective.
• Reassure yourself of your abilities to manage the stress.
• Avoid catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, maintaining unreasonable expectations, and focusing on the negative.
• Use your rational self-talk to reinterpret and challenge any irrational beliefs.
The first three core stress management strategies discussed thus far (self-awareness, physical relaxation, and the cognitive/psychological strategies) focus on controlling your stress reaction. The fourth skill, which focuses on problem solving, will put you in more control over the actual stressful events.