In a previous blog (What is Stress?) I described the three components of stress: (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tells you (your self-talk) about it and your ability to cope with it and (3) a stress response that kicks in if you feel unable to cope with it.
When you start to view stress this way you begin to change. You no longer see stress as something that just happens to you, and is beyond your control. Stress becomes more than just “bills, traffic, the government,” or other things that exist independently of you.
You begin to realize that the way you view these potential stressors, and your ability to cope with them, as the key that determines whether or not your brain triggers an actual stress response. You understand that your own self-talk plays the key role in all of this.
On top of all of the, you start to realize that you can play a more active role in understanding and managing your stress. This gives you a sense of power (also known as your perceived ability to cope) because it provides you with multiple places where you can step in and stop the stress response from ever happening.
In other words, the jump from potential stressor to stress response does not have to automatically happen. You play the biggest part in determining how things play out.
Let me explain how…
(1) Words are everything when it comes to stress. Just using the words potential stressor, instead of calling them stressors, defuses their power to create stress.
When you start calling things potential stressors you to stop accepting the outdated belief that certain things are universally stressful for everyone under all circumstances. The whole notion of universal stressors is nonsense and outdated.
Stop accepting this without question.
I’ll give you an example of a universal stressor that doesn’t always hold up. In the original studies of life events, researchers identified the death of a loved one as the most universal of all stressors and gave it the most weight in determining if someone would suffer from a stress-related illness in the following year.
Since then, this has been disproven. The death of a loved one is not always be viewed as a threat, harm, or loss.
Step back and try to think about this objectively for a second. I know this is difficult because death hits all of us hard.
If you lost a friend in their teens or 20s to an unexpected accident, injury, or violent crime would you view it the same way that would view the loss of your mom or dad who was in their 90s, had been suffering from a painful, debilitating illness, and had been constrained to a hospital bed for months and months ?
I’m sorry, I know this is painful to imagine or to revisit if you have experienced such loss. I have been there so I am asking for your forgiveness as I try to make this point.
While both losses represent the death of a loved one, would you view them the same way?
While you might feel guilty or ashamed admitting it, you might find that the latter death was a blessing in disguise. In fact, if the death of your mom or dad actually ended their pain and suffering, it also could have reduced your stress because you might have been able to cope with their loss. What you could not cope with was standing by for months and months, helpless as they suffered.
I faced this with the death of my mom who suffered for years with painful, debilitating illnesses that had her in and out of hospitals and emergency rooms. On many occasions she asked me to promise her that I would not let doctors or others keep her alive against her will when it was time to pass. I watched her waste away in hospice care and when she finally passed I must admit that I felt relief and a reduction in stress because I knew she suffered no more and her wishes had been granted.
When you can look at things as powerful as the death of a loved one as potential stressors, you can look at most other things as trivial, and not even worth getting stressed out over.
Viewing things as potential stressors gives you a much broader perspective on your stress and is empowering.
(2) When you realize that the determining factor in triggering the stress response is what your mind tells you about potential stressors, and your ability to cope with them, it opens up a whole new world of coping possibilities.
Think about those words for a minute; what your mind tells you about potential stressors and your ability to cope. Those are two different areas that you can begin to work on.
You can start to look more critically at the actual threat, harm, or loss that potential stressors really pose, and start asking questions such as; ” Is that really threatening?”, ” Is this really worth getting stressed out about?”, “Is that such a big loss that I am going to let myself get all stressed out over?”, “Did what she say/do/imply really harm me in some way?”
What I’ve found in working with people just like you for over 25 years is that when they start out, most tend to overestimate threat, harm and loss and underestimate their ability to cope with it. Their minds tend to blow things out of proportion and not give them credit for being able to handle it.
By the time they stopped working with me that trend has reversed. In fact most of my former students and clients chuckle when they look back at their stressor journals and see how they overestimated threat and underestimated their ability to cope.
Sometimes what your mind tells you about potential stressors, and your ability to handle them is not very accurate, helpful, or stress reducing.
Fortunately, when you start paying attention to your self-talk you begin to catch yourself when you start to overestimate how threatening a potential stressor is and underestimate your ability to cope with it.
You can learn how to unleash the power of your mind to reduce your stress by beginning to think more clearly about potential stressors , and your ability to cope with them. I call this Rethinking your stress and it is a big part of my work.
(3) Lastly, there are several ways to stop the stress response dead in its tracks even after it is triggered. Face it, sometimes potential stressors are real threats that you can’t do anything about. In this case your mind signals the alarm and your body mobilizes energy to fight or flee.
To minimize the harmful effects of stress you can learn how to cancel it out by triggering a relaxation response.In other words, if you do get stressed you can keep the response to a minimum by not letting it continue longer than it has to in order to get you out of harm’s way.
There are many ways to induce a relaxation response but the key is recognizing that you are stressed as soon as possible, and making the commitment to do something about it.
The more competent you feel in your ability to relax and cope in general, the more your mind will start to think about threat more realistically. This is called increasing your perceived ability to cope. If you believe you can cope with a potential stressor it will keep you from perceiving it as threatening.
In other words, if you feel that a potential stressor is not threatening and you believe you can cope with it, you can short-circuit the stress response.
So, what do you from here???
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