The stress response is really a response to threat triggered by the mind. It has been with us since the dawn of creation and has helped us deal with primitive threats such as being attacked by saber-tooth tigers to modern ones like being stuck in rush-hour traffic.
Your mind reacts to all threats the same way; it mobilizes energy to fight or flee. In the case of the saber-tooth tiger your primitive ancestors could do either (fight or flee). Once the threat was removed (they killed the tiger or escaped from it) the stress response shut down and after a short rest their bodies returned to normal. In the case of being stuck in rush-hour traffic you can do neither. Trapped in your car you can neither fight nor flee and the energy that your body mobilizes just simmers (or boils over if you let it) until the traffic dissipates or you cope with it somehow .
Becoming more aware of what your mind tells you about threat, and your ability to cope with it, is a key factor in learning how to RETHINK your stress. There is a subtle but very powerful difference between saying , “threat, and your ability to cope with it” and “what your mind tells you about threat and your ability to cope with it.” The first statement refers to your actual ability to assess threat accurately and cope with it based on your knowledge, coping skill level, life experience, etc. The second statement refers to with what your mind tells you about the threat and your ability to cope with it. Often, these are not the same.
This is important to mention because what your mind tells you about threat, and your ability to cope with it, isn’t always helpful. What your mind thinks about a potential stressor and your ability to cope with it can be broken down into two categories:
1. Helpful thoughts – objective, rational thoughts about the actual threat posed by the potential stressor and your ability to cope with it.
2. Unhelpful thoughts – irrational, unrealistic thoughts about the degree of threat and your inability to cope with it.
Your mind has the tendency to overestimate the threat associated with a potential stressor and underestimate your ability to cope with it. This results in feeling threatened and unable to cope, a combination that triggers a stress response.
Your runaway mind overestimates threat because it works non-stop churning through every conceivable outcome associated with the potentially threat. It also tries to protect you by being conservative and underestimating your ability to cope. Sometimes what your mind tells you about a potential stressor and your ability to cope with it is helpful, logical, and rational. Often however, what your mind tells you about this is unhelpful, illogical, and irrational.
Being aware of the way your mind works when thinking about a potential stressor changes your perspective. By saying to yourself, “what my mind is telling me about …” you can start to distance yourself from what your mind is telling you if that information is inaccurate and unhelpful. It allows you to “step back and observe” what your mind is telling you about the threat and your ability to cope with it . You become an impartial observer of your mind’s activity. This “observer-self perspective” is crucial in allowing you to assess whether or not your thoughts are helpful or unhelpful in terms of dealing with a potential stressor.
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