Stress Management, Part Three - It's All In Your Head (Well, A Lot Of It Is, Anyway)

When people talk about stress, they generally refer to the emotional and physical problems that it can bring.  A lousy mood, fatigue, susceptibility to colds, and feeling "blah" are all common signs of excessive stress.  When we decide to do something about our stress level, it usually involves finding ways to feel better physically and emotionally by modifying our behavior or our environment (see other articles in this series for ideas). 
There is another powerful, often overlooked factor, however.  It is how we think:  Literally, it is what we say to ourselves in our heads about the events that go on in our lives.  What we think affects how we feel, and our ability to cope with problems.  If you doubt this, consider how thinking affects your response to a common, everyday problem: the stubbed toe.  This experience, by anyone's standards, is horribly painful.  If you just dropped onto this planet today, and stubbed your toe without ever having heard of such a thing before, you would be terrified.  You would probably think you were seriously injured, perhaps permanently disabled.  You might panic.  You would probably call for help.  This would all happen because of your fearful thoughts, based on you having no idea what a stubbed toe is about.  Now let's rewind back to the same fateful toe-stubbing, only this time you bring your life's experience to the event.  You experience the same shock, the same disabling pain -- the physical experience is absolutely identical.  But this time, you know it's "only a stubbed toe."  You assure yourself that the pain will subside, and that you probably will be none the worse for wear once it's over.  So you calmly wait it out, perhaps cursing your clumsiness in the interim, and suffer no emotional distress beyond the fact that the thing really hurts.  This simple example shows how a particular event can result in either full-blown panic or short-term irritation, based solely on how you choose to think about it.
The thoughts -- or self-talk -- of people who are over-stressed tend to feature a number of common themes.  "My life is too far out of control to ever get back, so why try?"  "It's impossible for me to feel any better as long as my life is like this."  "Nothing I do is good enough for him."  "She's so depressed -- it must be because I'm disappointing her."  "No matter what I do, someone is going to be unhappy with me, and I can't stand that."  "I can't take better care of myself, because people will think I am selfish, and there’s no time for it anyway."  “There’s no point in expecting to be happy, because life just doesn’t work that way.”  “Everybody else knows how to do life, and I’m just never going to get it.”
If you've ever noticed this kind of self-talk in your own head, you probably also noticed that you were in a low mood at the time.  Negative self-talk and low moods tend to travel together; either one can trigger the other, but it is most often the self-talk that drives the mood.  Remember the example above: You can scare yourself silly or reassure yourself -- in response to the same triggering event -- based solely on how you choose to talk to yourself about it.
Self-talk such as the examples above will wreck your mood mostly because you are misleading yourself when you use it.  You are telling yourself that you are helpless, that people are judging you, that there is nothing you can do to make things better, or that you are hostage to someone else's feelings.  The problem with these beliefs is that they are largely untrue.  Due to the wonders of the self-fulfilling prophecy, however, if you tell yourself these things often enough, you will start behaving in ways that make them actually happen. There are some questions you can ask yourself in order to evaluate whether or not your self-talk is accurate:
♦  Are you making unreasonable demands of yourself?  Here's a hint -- would you make these same demands of someone else, and be so hard on them if they found it overwhelming?  If not, does it make sense to do it to yourself?
♦  Is it possible that you keep yourself from functioning to your full potential by telling yourself how helpless or incompetent you are?  Remember, if you tell yourself you can't, then you won't try.  If you don't try, then you'll never actually know what you are capable of.  You will indeed be less able, but only because you talked yourself out of it.  It might feel better if you said to yourself, "I'll do the best I can and see how it turns out.  I'll learn something either way."
♦  Does your self-talk make you feel worse instead of more able to cope?  Dwelling on weakness and fear will always disable you.  No matter how realistic those feelings may be, focussing your energy on them will keep you from coping constructively.  Constructive self-talk in a truly dire situation might sound like, "Okay, this is going to be really hard, so I've got to figure out how to manage it as well as I can."  Or, "There is a solution here, I just haven't found it yet."
♦  Do you assume you know what others are thinking and feeling, and make your decisions accordingly?  If so, you're probably working with very poor information, because most people overestimate their ability to know what others are experiencing.  Each of us has a vast emotional world happening inside.  Others have much to concern themselves with in life beyond evaluating your worth as a person.  Occasionally, you do find yourself dealing with someone who really does have nothing better to do than to judge your every move.  If that happens, you need to remind yourself that this is just who he or she is, and that it has little, if anything, to do with you personally. 
An excellent source of additional information on the subject of constructive self-talk is the book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns.  Like every other aspect of taking care of yourself, the more effort you make, the better the payoff.  Any effort at all, practiced consistently, will yield worthwhile results.  The more energy you put into keeping your self-talk balanced and accurate, the more sane and satisfying your life will feel.
Copyright © 1998, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.
Related articles:

Self-Help for Intense Anxiety

Sleep Well -- Self-Help for Insomnia
Stress Management Series, Part One: Introduction

Stress Management Series, Part Two: Creating Better Connections With Your Loved Ones


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