When it comes to stress, most of us place responsibility on sources outside ourselves. We blame the long list of items on our to-do list, the expectations of people at work or home, the appointments and deadlines marked on our calendars, the bills that must be paid, the traffic on the highways.
While any of these threats can trigger the stress response that prepares us for “fight or flight,” we must not overlook the very threats inside our own minds and bodies that tend to stress us. Our thoughts, emotions and behaviors can trigger internal stress that contributes to the “allostatic load” that we manage each and every day.
In his book, Feeling Good, psychiatrist David Burns shares a list of cognitive distortions that impact our emotions and behaviors. Cognitive distortions are inaccurate beliefs or perceptions. When they become a pattern of thinking, they can cause stress and interfere with our work and relationships. It is important to take time to slow down our automatic thoughts, focus on facts and consider other options or alternatives.
Some of the cognitive distortions we might recognize in ourselves or others include polarized thinking, mental filtering and emotional reasoning.
Polarized thinking is thinking in the extremes of all or nothing. We see ourselves as either a success or a failure. There is no room for a balanced view. Setting realistic expectations for ourselves and others is important. No one is perfect. In fact, studies show that we may actually decrease our stress and improve performance if we give ourselves permission to make mistakes and learn from them. Being critical of ourselves and others can actually lead to more stress.
When we engage in mental filtering, we view our lives through a negative lens. Focusing on the negative can lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A positive outlook can lessen our stress. When we recognize what is going well and acknowledge our strengths, we feel empowered to do our best. Expressing gratitude and being fully present in the moment through mindfulness and meditation can lead to positive perspectives.
If we ignore objective evidence and only trust our feelings, we may be tempted to depend solely upon emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning can lead to irrational judgements and poor decision-making. For example, “I feel incompetent, so I must be incompetent.” This way of thinking leads to unnecessary stress. Adding our best thinking to our feelings can shift our mindset to a more open and relaxed state.
It is not just our thoughts that can add stress to our lives, it is also our behaviors. Eating a healthy diet, engaging in exercise and maintaining a regular sleep schedule are protective factors for stress. According to Dr. Bruce McEwen, author of The End of Stress as We Know It, when we are stressed, we often neglect to do the very things we know are best for us.
McEwen writes, “Many people who feel trapped in difficult situations turn for consolation to the very things that are bad for them — French fries and doughnuts, alcohol and cigarettes, pulling all-nighters at the office — piling on yet another layer of allostatic load to whatever is causing the stress in the first place.” The coping techniques we choose can have biological effects that are just as punishing as the consequences of chronic stress.
We all are creatures of stress. The optimal level of stress can lead to mental alertness, productivity, creativity and high energy. It is when life begins to get out of balance that we may experience the extremes of too little stress resulting in boredom, apathy and absenteeism or too much stress resulting in illness, irritability, burn-out and fatigue.
When we better understand our part in the stress we carry, we can make choices that improve our bodies and minds which will enable us to live a healthier lifestyle. Physical activity, social support, mindfulness and meditation can benefit our minds and bodies.
The next time you feel overwhelmed by stress, pay attention to your thoughts and behaviors. The choices you make will make a difference!