The Principles of stress management

When we talk about stress, there are always two sides to it. There are objective circumstances (everything that happens outside of our head) and  there are our interpretations of the circumstances (everything that happens inside our head). We only have control over some, but not all, of the objective circumstances. What is more, we don't have much control over the content of our mind. Are you raising your eyebrows in disbelief? Don't take my word for it, try this experiment and send me an email if you can get it to work. Are you ready? Ok, here it goes: after you finish reading this sentence, I really want you to NOT imagine a freshly cut sour piece of lemon in your mouth.

 

(Really curious how it went. Are you still NOT imagining it?)

When we talk about stress management, we are not talking about getting rid of stress, controlling stress, or avoiding stress. Attempts at control and avoidance often create more problems than they solve when we are dealing with thoughts and emotions. Have you ever noticed that the more you are trying to avoid certain thoughts, the more salient they become?

However, the intensity of our reactions, both cognitive and emotional, and how we relate to our thoughts and emotions, can be changed overtime. Just not by controlling them. Newest scientific evidence points towards these key principles in stress management.

  • Brain hygiene. Stress takes up a lot of mental resources, therefore under stress, it is particularly important that we take care of our brain and make sure it has the best possible “working conditions”. Just like our bodies, to perform at its best, our brain needs to be well-fed, well-rested, and aired out. Metaphorically and literally. That is why brain hygiene is the foundation for any further stress interventions. (You can read more about lifestyle and brain hygiene here).

  • Awareness. We can’t change our relationship with that we don't know or are not aware of. Familiarizing ourselves with our thinking and reaction pattern is another key element in effective coping with stress. And so is becoming more aware of our resources, internal and external.

  • Acceptance. Part of successful coping is to “resign as general manager of the Universe”, as someone wise put it. In other words, to stop fighting things beyond our control. Easier said than done, I know. More importantly – and this may seem counter-intuitive at first, given the pervasive cult of happiness – accepting all our thoughts and emotions (yes, also negative emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, fear, and anger) and giving them space is key to psychological well-being.

  • Addressing distorted thinking. “I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” This quote by Mark Twain captures the essence of mind under stress. A stressed mind is not very good at critical thinking, but is extremely good at catastrophic thinking. It likes to spin stories. Some of them are quite captivating, but those stories never end well. Learning to recognize thoughts for what they are (stories rather than reality) is crucial for stress management.

  • Self-compassion. Stress has become a status thing for many. “I am so stressed” means that I am busy, I am accomplishing something important. Perseverance, grit, and hardiness are considered virtues, a key to success in life. Living by these values may eventually lead to exhaustion. What takes more maturity, wisdom, and courage is to recognize and respect our own limits and to learn to say no. No to success and yes to failure at least once in a while. Persistence has its place, but sometimes giving up is the wisest solution.

Green Light

Stress and Sleep Counseling

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