When you think about stress management, what do you think of? Do you picture hammocks, white sandy beaches, and azure blue oceans? Do you think of soothing music, candles, and a hot bath in a claw-foot tub overflowing with bubbles? Or perhaps you are picturing yourself laying on a plush leather couch while you free-associate about your childhood. While the above strategies may prove useful to reducing your stress, I would like to begin with the simplest of concepts; one that is essential to managing one’s stress.
Many have heard me say, “Belief is the basis of action. Your behaviour will always be in accordance with your beliefs.” This is as true for stress as it is for any other aspect of our lives. Richard Lazarus, one of the first to coin the word “stress”, described it as a feeling or state that occurs when the perceived demands on one’s life (whether emotional, social, financial, intellectual, etc.) exceed the resources one has available. In other words, if you don’t think (or believe) that you can handle the demands currently placed upon you, you will experience stress.
While stress may express itself through physiological cues, it is a total experience, encompassing mind, body, and spirit. Thus, stress must be combated on all of those levels. The first of these battlegrounds is that of the mind, as that is where stress begins. It begins with your perceptions, and the choices you make in dealing with them. If you choose to believe that your situation is hopeless, your mind will stop seeking for answers and go into survival mode. Your body will assume the physiological state of fight or flight, causing a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, an excessive production of blood sugar and cholesterol, and an increase in the production of cortisol, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
All of these physical responses can wreak havoc on the body if left unchecked. Too often though, we tend to try to resolve what is happening in the body without first addressing what is taking place on the battlefield of the mind. You must first adjust your attitude if you wish to successfully keep your stress levels in check.
Am I saying that one should not be justified in feeling alarmed when a crisis comes up? Absolutely not. It is a natural response to feel a little overwhelmed from time to time when crises arise in our lives. However, how you respond to the crisis in your mind will, in the end, determine your overall ability to cope with it.
A negative attitude will invariably gnaw away at your capability to fight, to seek answers or solutions, and to prevail against the presenting challenge. By remaining solution focused, you can train your brain to look for the positive aspects of the current challenge. You will be able to look back on previous crises in your life, and draw on the strength of knowing that you were able to survive it, and perhaps even take from some of the skills you used in the last situation to help you through this one.
It has been said that the mind is a terrible thing to waste. Indeed, the mind is a powerful tool, when used correctly. By asking yourself key questions, you can train your mind to work for you rather than against you in the battle for optimum stress. Here are some questions you can use to help you train your brain to develop positive attitudes:
- What’s good about this?
- What can I learn from this?
- How can this situation help me become stronger?
- Who has been through something similar that I can call on for help or advice?
- What skills or resources do I have that I can use to help me in this situation?
- How can I become a better person as a result of this crisis?
Begin carefully asking yourself these questions so that you can prepare your brain with a positive attitude to help you deal effectively with each stress-inducing situation as it arises. Remember that the only time you will not experience stress is when you are dead. We will always experience some stress because it shows that we are growing, learning, developing, and evolving; the question is whether or not it will be mobilizing or optimum stress, or whether it will be the consuming kind. Maintaining a positive attitude, one that seeks to find the good in each situation, and looks for ways to learn from each challenge, will propel you towards a state of optimum stress. Whenever stressful challenges arise, remember, attitude is where it all begins.
This article is excerpted from Julie Christiansen’s book, When the Last Straw Falls: 30 Ways to Keep Stress from Breaking Your Back. Julie is an international speaker and author of several books, and is the president of Leverage U a training, consulting and publishing company. She also runs a private practice in psychotherapy with a specialization in anger, stress, bullying and trauma recovery.