Managing Stress - Calming our Thoughts
Almost half of the thoughts we have each day wander into the past or the future, instead of focusing on the here-and-now. As Rick Hason talks ahout in his book “Hardwiring Happiness”, our brain has a negativity bias. It acts as a magnet for thoughts associated with negative experiences, while more positive thoughts don’t stick as easily. This bias served an evolutionary purpose of keeping us safe from threats, but it does its job a little too well; meaning that we have to consciously attend to the good experiences in order to really feel their effect and enable them to linger in our minds.
It’s no wonder that when stress affects our thinking, we become more prone to anxiety and depression which only feeds the cycle of stress further. The voice in our head, already prone to noticing more negative experiences, is led by stress instead of more rational, common sense thinking. Here are some of the ways in which chronic stress impacts our thoughts:
· Confusion: Stressful thinking impacts our ability to concentrate. Our memory for what we do and say can be less reliable and we can struggle to organise and prioritise what to do in a daily task or routine.
· Sensitivity: We become hyper-vigilant for possible threats. We zero in on the worst-case scenarios and outcomes and under-estimate our own resilience and coping resources.
· Low self-esteem. When we’re stressed, we lose confidence in our own abilities and start to feel worthless or beyond help. Our thoughts can make us perceive that we have no control over situations.
· Incorrect assumptions: We think about situations in terms of “Always” or “Never”, rather than how truly fluid they might be. Over-generalisations are more common, based on a stressful yet isolated incident. We are more likely to jump to conclusions and feel that our negative predictions will come true.
· Distorted perceptions: Stress causes us to think about the things that went wrong in a particular day, whilst downplaying the more numerous positive or neutral experiences. When we or others attempt to come up with solutions to a problem, they can often be disqualified as “Yes, but…”.
During the coronavirus crisis, it can be so easy for our thoughts to take a downward spiral; particularly as we worry about the future in a number of different ways. So, what can we do to anchor ourselves in the present and calm our thought traffic?
Paying more attention to the present moment
As so much of our conscious attention wanders into the past or reflects on possible futures, we need to anchor ourselves in the present. One nice grounding technique is the 54321 approach. When we have anxious thoughts racing through your mind, we can slow down our body by noticing a variety of things. These include 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Dr Helen Williams, Clinical Psychologist, provides a lovely demonstration of this approach in this video from Beacon House - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJHupiDtJKA. What we notice can be big or small – the key is to tap into our immediate surroundings and keep our body in the here-and-now.
A nice technique I learned from Caroline Stewart, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and the founder of Mindfulness NI (https://mindfulnessni.org/about/) is the 50/50 attention strategy. When you’re listening to someone talking, try to keep some of your attention on your inner experience. Find an anchor, be it the sensation of your feet on the floor, your thighs on the chair or your hands on the table. It doesn’t have to be a perfect 50/50 split – the aim is to decrease the potential for negative thoughts to arise by practising how to keep our body in mind whilst attending to something else. We can also be more mindful about our breathing. Take more notice of this simple process – the way the breath comes in through your nose, how it feels to hold the breath, the rise and fall of your abdomen and the sensation of the air rushing out of your mouth. Once again, this takes our focus right back to the body and away from thoughts which activate or paralyse us.
Positive Self-Talk and Gratitude
The stressful voice in our mind is comprised of negative statements, which we need to actively combat with a more positive or at least neutral commentary. The first step can be our choice of words. Notice how we use more extreme language, such as saying “I hate that person” or “This is disgraceful”? We can try to temper these statements; for example, “I don’t like that person” or “This is so annoying”. It can also be useful to try and provide some balance to our thinking. If your thought is “I can’t do this”, you might reshape it as “How do I do this?”. The former shuts down problem-solving, while the latter allows for solutions to be sought.
Positive mantras can be a way of stopping negative thoughts in their tracks. As you notice your mind drifting to self-critical statements about the past or worrying predictions about the future, try to calm your mind with a consistent word or phrase. “Everything is ok”. “This will pass”. “I have enough. I’m doing enough. I am enough”. It can even be part of a song or words which are spoken with a melody, since research on developmental trauma indicates that rhythm is very regulating for the brain.
We also need to practise being grateful for what we have – paying conscious attention to positive experiences is more likely to make them “stick” in the brain. If you follow the brilliant Dr Pooky Knightsmith on Twitter, you’ll see her regularly referring to the hashtag “3 Good Things”. This asks us to share three good experiences about the day. It’s important not to simply look for big moments of achievement or victory; there will be plenty of days when these are few and far between. It might be a tiny moment which made you smile, laugh or reminisce. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something you’ve done – it could be something on TV, in a magazine or a story told by a friend. Here’s Dr Knightsmith talking about the concept - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSMjzhDUurA. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a concrete way of looking back on these good times – if you’re into arts and crafts, you can decorate it with pictures and photos to really enrich the positive experience.
Challenge your thoughts
Ask yourself how likely it is for the thing you’re worrying about to come true. Let’s take the example of someone who is afraid to speak at a conference. Their mind can be filled with thoughts such as “I’m going to forget what to say”, “People are going to laugh at me”, “People will be bored” and “I can’t talk in front of so many people”. That person could think back to a time where they had to stand up in front of others and talk about something; remembering how the anxious thoughts and bodily sensations were temporary. Considering the likelihood of the thought becoming reality requires us to pause for a moment and look outside of the tunnel vision that the stressful voice in our mind constructs.
We can also try to find evidence for the thought. Remember that we’re primed to think more negatively by default, so look for evidence to the contrary. This might include thoughts such as “This is hard, but I’m coping so far” and “Things are really hectic right now, but I’m trying my best”. Going back to the public speaking example, the person could keep in mind that no-one has laughed at them in the past and they’ve never had an occasion where their mind has gone blank when giving their views in front of others. Weighing up the “for” and “against” is important to prevent distorted thinking and impulsive conclusions about our fitness to handle a problem.
Reframe your thoughts
It’s hard to keep things in perspective when our thoughts are overwhelmed by stress. But we can ask ourselves what is the worst that could happen if the negative thought was true. Keeping with the public speaking example, the worst might be “Someone will be bored”, “I might forget to say something” or “I’ll not enjoy talking in front of so many people”. When the worst outcomes aren’t catastrophic, our mind and body will be calmer with this more realistic thinking.
Reflecting on how bad a current situation really is can also help to reframe our thinking. These might be thoughts such as “It’s been a bad day, but it’s over now”, “This was really tough, but now I know how to handle it” and “I’ve learned something from this”. We need to practise looking beyond the automatic negative thoughts and tell ourselves that we won’t even remember them in a few months’ time. Dr Jim White, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and creator of the “Stress Control” programme (https://stresscontrol.org/home) recommends asking whether life is too short to worry about certain things. This can include thoughts such as “Do I want to look back on what I didn’t do?”, “At least I’ve tried” and “I still have my family, my friends and my health”. Again, this encourages us to put our thoughts into perspective and look at the bigger picture – an ability which is often impaired when our stressful voice is screaming at the top of its lungs.
Our negative thoughts can be overwhelming. The ideas above will take time, effort and practise. Some may be more successful than others and there will be times when they don’t work as well and we need to fall back to more physical things to calm our body or distract us. Learning how to gradually control and calm our thoughts will help us to keep our stress in check and enhance our overall well-being.