We all know life can be stressful. But is stress actually the enemy? Or is how we respond to it and let stress control us the real problem?
Stressful events like giving a big presentation or asking our boss for a promotion aren’t ones that we want to eliminate from our lives. Instead, the goal is to learn how to manage those potentially stress-inducing events.
How can you do that? By shifting your response to stress, you can learn how to peacefully coexist with events that might have stressed you out in the past. And, at the same time, you’ll become more productive and in control when dealing with stress in the present.
Jan Bruce, Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., and Adam Perlman, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.P., authors of meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier and co-founders of meQuilibrium, explore how to do just that.
Their research shows that your thoughts become habits that can actually exacerbate your stress. Once you learn to understand and address your thinking styles, you can gain control over your stress, rather than letting that stress take control of you.
How to control stress
Here is a three-step process—trap it, map it, zap it—that will help you shift your response and change your perspective:
1. Trap it.
Identify what you are feeling. Most of us, if we stop and identify the physical sensation we are experiencing (flushed face, rapid heartbeat, sour stomach), can identify the emotion as soon as we feel it coming on (anger, anxiety or shame, respectively).
Often, we are better at identifying our feelings than we are our thoughts. However, our thoughts—at least in part—determine our emotional reaction, which we then experience as stress. We have to look further downstream at how we are feeling in order to get control of the upstream thought behind it. So identify the emotion and trap it.
2. Map it to control your stress.
Once you’ve trapped the emotion, identify the thought behind it. This is often less difficult than you think.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious, you’re likely thinking, something bad is going to happen. If you’re angry, you’re likely thinking, my rights have been violated in some way. If you’re feeling embarrassed, you may be thinking, I’ve lost standing in someone’s eyes.
Try to be as precise about that thought as possible.
3. Zap it.
The next step is to challenge that thought to control your stress.
What is the bad thing that is going to happen?
Have my rights truly been violated?
Other people are more concerned about their own image than they are about mine.
Ask yourself if this feeling is really warranted. Is something really there? Am I actually likely to blow that big presentation? Did my son truly not take out the trash in order to be disrespectful? You’ll often find that the thought has no validity. As you realize this, the thought will disappear, and the negative emotion will disappear with it. You’re prepared for the presentation and they’ve always gone well in the past. Your son has been studying for exams and just needs to be reminded.
meQuilibrium’s methods have been used by Fortune 500 businesses to help their employees build resilience and optimize their work performance. Once we learn to shift our response to stress and control it, we too will begin to feel cooler and calmer—and ultimately, happier.
This article was published in April 2015 and has been updated. Photo by Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock
Adam Perlman, M.D., is a recognized leader in the field of integrative medicine and a respected researcher and educator in the field of complementary and alternative medicine and wellness. His research has been published in the Archives of Internal Medicine and The New York Times. In 2011, he became the executive director for Duke Integrative Medicine.