It is an essential first step when you are dealing with stress to be able to separate the real stressor from the way you’re reacting to it.
To illustrate the importance of separating the real stressor from the way you’re reacting to it, I’ll draw on an example of someone who is not business-minded but somehow finds themselves working in a ruthless, commercial environment. The feelings that the person may be experiencing are : “I can’t cope, it’s just not me, I’m out of my depth”. They might be exhibiting behaviours such as avoiding situations they find stress-inducing such as team meetings and giving presentations in front of clients.
Once the person has identified the source of his stress as actually being in a demanding environment that exceeds the resources he can mobilise, then it is easier to see the options available and start developing strategies. The person can either evaluate his situation and decide that : “You know what, this is just not me, it’s not where I want to be, I’m not at my best here so let’s look at other possibilities like working in a smaller, less competitive company” (that is the person can decide to change the situation they are in), or they can decide to alter their behaviour : “This isn’t me today but I’m going to make an effort, I can get some coaching, learn to be more assertive and commercial and start reading the F.T every morning…maybe the interest will grow” (that is they are adjusting their behaviour to the situation). Deciding which option is the most appropriate depends on the person’s identity, purpose, feelings, needs and ambitions and how they see their future. What is however essential if you want to manage a stressful situation is to adjust in some way or another. As Maya Angelou says :
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
In any case, before considering options and building strategies, it is essential to identify the stressors. For the person terrified of flying, it would help to know whether the stressor is not knowing how to switch off (capacity), or is it the irrational belief that she is going to die young (limiting belief) or is it not liking the claustrophobic context of a plane (environment). It can of course be all three and include additional stressors as well. Once the stressor or several stressors have been identified, an action plan and diverse strategies can be developed. Managing a limiting belief (such as the belief that : “planes are incredibly fragile” or “I’m going to die young”) requires different strategies (doing an Air France course on planes or NLP work on overcoming fear) to developing mindfulness and the capacity to be in the present moment (learning meditation).
Avoid cognitive distortions
Whilst looking at your actual situation, analysing everything in the past or future (over which you don’t have control) leads to cognitive distortions which exacerbate profound stress. The cycle of negative thoughts that accompanies overwhelming stress is often a result of analysing future possibilities over which you have no control. I’ll draw on the person struggling in a cut-throat business environment and the phobic passenger to illustrate how people engage in cognitive distortions when stressed. This includes :
- Catastophizing worst-case scenarios : in the former case : “I’ll never find another job as my boss will give me a terrible reference” and in the latter : “There’s going to be a terrorist attack or the plane is going to explode mid-air” ;
- Over-generalising : “I was hopeless in that business meeting last year, it’s always going to be the same…”; or : “A plane crashed in the ocean last month, this one could crash too…” ; and
- Comparing yourself to others and feeling guilty about this : “Why can’t I be commercially-minded like my colleagues?”, “Why can’t I be normal like everyone else? All the other passengers seem to be reading calmly…”.
Developing mindfulness and being kind to yourself
Engaging in these three types of cognitive distortions, and consequently letting your thoughts run riot by imagining things must be avoided if you want to manage profound stress and become aligned. One step to take to avoid the trap of cognitive distortions is to be mindful and concentrate your thoughts on the present moment, keeping them to the objective situation at hand.
For the plane phobic this would be : “I’m on a flight leaving from Paris to Berlin. I’m going as I have a work conference. If I didn’t take a plane I wouldn’t be able to attend it. There’s slight turbulence”. If you can’t manage this level of objective interpretation (as your thoughts are hijacking you), then imagine what a kind friend would say to you in the same situation. This would probably go something like : “There’s hardly any turbulence, you need to take this flight to get to Berlin on time. Everyone else is calm. Breathe deeply”.
It is often not the stressor itself but thinking through worst-case scenarios, and the perceptions and expectations you have that makes stress profound. Many times we create our own stress because of faulty perceptions that we can learn to correct. So it’s incredibly important to objectively identify the stressor/s in your current situation. Once you’ve identified that, how you decide to deal with it and the strategies you put in place is another question. What is certain is that finding an action plan and strategy you feel enthusiastic about is going to give you the hope and positive mindset necessary to overcome profound stress. As Eckhart Tolle says :
Unlike stress, enthusiasm has a high energy frequency and so resonates with the creative power of the universe.