Stress! Something we all experience from time to time. What is it? And can you Iive and work stress-free? There are many articles about how to beat stress when you’re already experiencing stress. These give useful tips such as exercise, meditation, sleep, socialising and more. And that is all helpful, but this article aims to give you tips on how to beat stress at the source! So you can reduce how often stress shows up for you.
What is stress?
Stress is an emotional, and sometimes physical, response to some form of pressure or threat you’re experiencing, often related to things like time, performance or an expectation of others or of situations. It can be small things, like having to wait in a queue when you’re in a rush or big things like a big pitch or an interview.
Stress is part of life, like any emotion you experience. Sometimes it can spur you on, or motivate you to do better. Generally, it is seen as something you want to avoid. When you feel stressed, you usually feel uncomfortable and it can even make you feel sick!
It is how you think, act and respond in stressful situations that makes the difference. How can you avoid a knee-jerk reaction when under pressure? How can you control your emotions and reactions when things get tough. And how can you learn to interpret stressful situations differently?
Good leaders have this skill; being able to stay calm and focused under pressure, not letting emotions take over. It’s a big part of emotional intelligence and the good news is that it is a skill that can be developed.
What causes stress?
Understanding a little bit more about what causes stress is a great place to start, as it will give you something to look out for. Stress is a response to some form of pressure or a perceived threat or danger. So there are the obvious causes like a fire or being chased by a bear! But thankfully, these don’t happen so much!
Daily causes of stress are often related to simpler or more subtle ‘dangers’ such as pressure or a perceived threat, for example when you fear conflict or a difficult conversation. Or when you’re facing a tight deadline. Or when you have to perform in a certain way to achieve a desired result.
In short, stress can occur when you experience pressure relating to other people, time or performance. This is usually related to expectations and/or attachments you might have about the situation.
For example, in an interview, you are keen to impress the people who are interviewing you because you have a strong attachment to the outcome of the interview, which is to get offered the position.
It’s obvious, isn’t it?
That all seems pretty straight forward perhaps, obvious even! Or is it? With an important interview or pitch, you might know why you’re feeling nervous, but sometimes, stress creeps in a little bit more subtly.
Maybe you’re experiencing some resistance at work to an idea that seemed really good to you? Maybe you find yourself unexpectedly being questioned on your knowledge or experience.
Your interpretation of situations like these is what can cause you stress. And your interpretation is heavily influenced by how you perceive the world around you generally. With rose-tinted glasses, everything probably looks great! But if you are even a tiny bit blue, stress can creep in subconsciously.
How does stress creep in subconsciously? It uses ANTs! No, not the little industrious insects! I mean Automatic Negative Thoughts. As the name suggests, these thoughts come along automatically, which means they’re harder to notice! And as these ANTs creep in, they can trigger stress-related reactions which can be difficult to control.
It’s by becoming more aware of your thought patterns, in particular these Automatic Negative Thoughts, that you can start to beat stress.
Noticing your thoughts
By noticing your thoughts, you can start to become more aware of these ANTs when they happen. Once you can notice the ANTs, you can start to challenge those thoughts because they’re rarely based on objective facts.
Once you notice these ANTs you can start to reframe your thinking into something more helpful or positive, which will help you interpret a situation differently.
What thoughts cause stress?
If ANTs are automatic, how can you notice them? ANTs occur in a number of fairly standard ways. I’m sure you will recognise at least a few in this list of common examples of ANTs:
- Binary thinking – thinking in terms of only 2 correct options, no middle ground; such as:
- RIGHT/WRONG and
- Applying a negative bias, for example:
- 1 bit of negative feedback cancels out all the positive feedback
- 1 small error means total failure
- Jumping to conclusions and making false assumptions, for example:
- Mind-reading; “oh I’m sure they’ll never go for that!”, “They’ll think I’m stupid!”
- Fortune-telling; “That will never work!”
- Catastrophizing and magnifying problems, while minimising possibilities:
- Thinking of the worst case scenario and how problems can escalate to bring about a catastrophe, and not giving any attention to how things might go right.
- Thinking with your feelings:
- I feel like this therefore it is true, eg “I feel bad therefore things must be bad.”
- Guilt, shame or judgement in your thoughts:
- Thinking with ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought to’ etc. These indicate there is a (subconscious) judgement about the situation, which may not be correct or helpful.
- Calling yourself names, or negative things such as lazy, rubbish etc
- Blame and responsibility
- Taking all the responsibility for a situation, while not considering the roles of others involved.
Which ones of these do you recognise?
Now that you can recognise several common ANTs, it will be easier for you to notice these creeping into your thinking. And once you notice them, you can recognise that they might be less than helpful, and may actually be causing you stress. It will be easier to challenge these ANTs once you can notice them.
Noticing ANTs is a practice. It’s not something that you will likely get right in one go. To develop your practice, you can try the following:
- Start to notice your thoughts
- Slow down your thinking and reactions
- Create some space to reflect and practice self-inquiry
This will allow you to slow down and learn more about those quick-fire thoughts that are difficult to notice. From here, it will be easier to question the validity or truth of your thoughts objectively.
How to beat stress
To beat stress at the source, rather than recover from stress, it helps to know more about what causes stress and how that shows up in your experience and your thoughts.
ANTs are a common cause of stress. By being able to recognise when these thoughts occur to you, you will be able to recognise the source of stress and with practice, you can reframe these stress-inducing thoughts. You can take a more objective view of the situation when you take the automatic negative bias out.
Recover from stress
Nothing is perfect, and as I mentioned, this is a practice, so when stress hits, there are some practical things you can do to help yourself recover:
- Exercise or simply a walk outside
- Listen to music, maybe even dance around the living room! Why not!?
- Spend some time doing a hobby, like reading, crafts or a videogame.
- Talk with other people
- Have a nap
- Think of 3 things you did well that day!
You can find more information on stress relieve from the NHS here.
What other tips are your favourite to get over some stress?
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If you have questions about this article or would like to explore in some more detail, get in touch. I’m here to help and I’m happy to have a conversation.