Stress begins and ends with what your mind thinks about stress. Your mind constantly talks to you about threatening things (potential stressors) and your ability to cope with them. Sometimes what it tells you is an accurate picture of the threat they pose and your ability to cope with it.
Most of the time however, your mind is not thinking clearly about stress and your ability to cope with it. This usually happens because your mind is focused on unhelpful and outdated thoughts and feelings about stress from the past or worries about the future.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) provide the best framework for understanding how your mind thinks about stress. ACT and RFT research show that your brain is a 24/7 non-stop thinking and feeling machine that works like a computer. Your brain, like a computer, constantly processes information and runs multiple programs simultaneously.
The stress-related programs that your brain runs are called your internal and external potential stressors. Internal potential stressors are the thoughts, lines of inner dialogue, mental images, and emotions that originate in your mind. External potential stressors are behavioral and environmental in nature and originate in your physical environment.
Your mind constantly evaluates the threat involved in potential stressors and your ability to cope with it. Sometimes this evaluation process is accurate and based on objective facts. Other times it isn’t. Whether the evaluation is accurate or not doesn’t matter in terms of triggering a stress response. If your mind tells you a potential stressor is threatening and beyond your ability to cope with, it will trigger a stress response.
Often, when you are not thinking accurately about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them it is because your mind has dredged up unhelpful and outdated thoughts about them from the past. Relational Frame Theory calls these past frames of reference, relational frames. Every stressful relational frame in your mind is related to the specific context in which it occurred. According to RFT, the context of a learning experience is as important as the content of it. Your current thoughts and feelings about new potential stressors are related to past stressful relational frames and the context in which they occurred.
In addition, your mind can carry this process one step farther and use information from past relational frames to jump ahead into the future and project and endless stream of possible negative future outcomes based on your inability to cope successfully in the past. Your mind’s ability to use the past and present to jump ahead and anticipate the future is the basis for a lot of worry, anxiety, and reluctance to take action.
Let’s use fear of public speaking as an example of how this process works. I want you to imagine that you are 35 years old and have been at your current job for a few years. You work for a large international company and are the head of a technical support group. Until this point your job has not involved giving presentations to large groups or doing any public speaking except in small meetings with a few colleagues. Recently, your technology support group has been involved in some projects that have dramatically increased productivity resulting in your company saving money and changing the way it does business. Your boss just finished meeting with you to thank you for your efforts and to inform you that he wants you to make a presentation at the company’s annual meeting next month. You’ll be speaking in the large conference room to about twenty board members and executives, and your presentation will be broadcast live to the company’s other locations around the world.
In an instant, your mind drifts back to your senior year in high school over twenty years ago. At that time you had to give a speech in front of your English class about a classic novel that everyone in the class was assigned to read. Even though you read the book, understood it completely, and enjoyed it immensely, addressing the class was very stressful. You remember standing in front of the class sweating profusely and trembling. Your tongue felt three inches thick, your mouth was dry as cotton, and you were unable to utter a word. All of the other students laughed, and the teacher, after letting you suffer for what seemed like an eternity, dismissed you with a curt remark about being unprepared.
Since then, all of your experiences related to public speaking have been filtered through this original frame of reference. Up until this point in your life and your career you’ve managed to avoid speaking in public. Now, as a successful 35-year-old professional, twenty years removed from that high school classroom, your fear of public speaking still haunts you. You still find yourself caught up in the illogical thinking, unhelpful negative self-talk and swirling emotions that have kept you stuck in a rut regarding public speaking.
Your runaway mind says unhelpful things such as, “I can’t do this. I don’t even know what to wear to such a meeting. I’ll just die if I have to get up in front of these executives. What if I screw up? I’ve never been on TV before. I’ll never be able to look at the monitor and keep my composure. I’ll just fall apart right in front of everyone. I’m the world’s worst public speaker. I hate public speaking.”
It seems that the more you try to eliminate and control your unhelpful thoughts and feelings, the worse they get. In truth, that is exactly what happens.
To help you better understand how to manage unhelpful self talk I’m giving away two very powerful freebies:
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