As a line of defense against stress, Rethink works by helping you change the way you think about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them. Remember, stress is a combination of three things; (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tells you about your ability to cope with it and (3) a stress response that kicks in if you feel unable to cope with it. What your mind tells you about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them determines whether or not your brain triggers a stress response. Let’s use being stuck in traffic as an example.
Getting stuck in traffic is an everyday occurrence for most of us living in Southwest Florida. Most folks would label traffic as a potential stressor and feel that they could cope with it. So what turns traffic from a potential stressor to a real stressor that triggers a stress response? Usually it is something connected to the traffic that makes it threatening.
For example, hitting traffic when you are supposed to be in an important meeting at work and are running late is different from getting stuck in traffic when you are on your way to the mall to do a little shopping. The threat of being late for work and missing the meeting is much greater than the threat of getting to the mall later than you wanted to do a little shopping. Being late for work and missing an important meeting can result in a host of work-related problems. You could even get fired for it. Getting to the mall later than you want to has very few consequences. You might miss out on a sale item or have a harder time finding a good parking spot but these hardly compare to losing your job.
Traffic is traffic; it is a reality of modern living in Southwest Florida. What your mind tells you about the traffic and your ability to cope with it is the determining factor in whether or not it triggers a stress response in your body and mind. I’ve worked with enough people to know that some folks will argue that the two threats are the same and that shopping is on par with earning a living. This is a perfect example of the kind of illogical, irrational, and unhelpful thinking that can turn an everyday occurrence with minimal threat like traffic into a full-blown stress response.
Learning how to Rethink your stress begins with understanding how your mind works in stressful situations. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) provides a useful framework for doing this. ACT was developed by Steven Hayes and his colleagues at the University of Nevada at Reno. They found that when you learn something, you learn it in relation to other things specific to that time and place. Because of this they found that the context of your learning is as important as the content of it.
For example, your current thoughts about a potential stressor are related to the original context (called the relational frame) from your past in which you initially learned about this stressor. Your mind uses information from previous relational frames as the basis for assessing the threat posed by current potential stressors. In addition, your mind can carry this one step further and use this information to jump ahead and project an infinite number of possible negative outcomes if you allow it to ruminate. I call this “going past, present, and future.” Your mind’s ability to go past, present, future, is both a blessing and the basis for a lot of your worry, anxiety, and stress.
Let me use fear of public speaking as an example of how this works. Imagine that you’re like many people and are stressed out by public speaking. Your boss tells you that you have to address 100 people tomorrow regarding the status of a project you’re in charge of. After hearing this, you start to sweat, get tense, and feel severe anxiety. In addition, you tell yourself: “I’ll just die if I have to give this speech. I’ll fall apart right on that stage. I’m the world’s worst public speaker, and I’m such an idiot for feeling like this.”
You can’t figure out why something as simple as presenting information to your colleagues can cause such stress. To understand this better, you need to go back twenty-five years and look at the original context of your learning.
Imagine you’re back in your high school English class and have to give a ten-minute speech about a book you read over the winter break. Even though this happened twenty-five years ago, you can close your eyes and see the event as if it had happened yesterday. Even though you read the book, understood it completely, and enjoyed it immensely, when you stood in front of the class, you started sweating, your tongue felt three inches thick, your mouth went dry, and you froze, unable to utter a word. All of the other students laughed, and the teacher, after letting you suffer for what seemed like an eternity, dismissed you with a curt remark about being unprepared.
Since then, all of your thoughts, feelings, and actions about public speaking have been filtered through the original relational frame of that experience; your failed high school speaking assignment. In college, you agonized over every class that required public speaking. You avoided most of them by dropping out as soon as you learned of the public speaking requirement. Up until this point in your life and career, you’ve managed to avoid most of the situations that have required that you speak in public. At forty-two, you’re very successful and accomplished in a number of different areas, yet twenty-five years removed from that initial experience, your fear of public speaking still haunts you. You still react as if you are an immature, unsophisticated, 17-year-old high school student.
One reason why things like this happen is that your past relational frames always operate in the background of your brain. Think of your brain as a 24/7 thinking and feeling machine. Like a computer, it constantly processes information and is capable of running multiple programs at the same time. Your mind’s programs are your thoughts, personal scripts, mental images, and emotions. While you’re familiar with thoughts and emotions, let me take a moment to look at personal scripts and mental images.
Thoughts link together to form personal scripts (also known as self-talk). Your self-talk is like the dialogue from a scene in a play. The play in this case is your life, and each script paints a picture of how you remembered the scene playing out. You have personal scripts about everything you learned in your life going back to your earliest recollections and use of language. Mental images are the pictures that go along with your personal scripts it. Mental images are the pictures you see when you close your eyes and think about a personal script. Both personal scripts and mental images can become outdated when they no longer accurately represent who you are as a person as is the case in our public speaking example.
Like your computer’s programs that are always running, your mind’s programs also run in the background without you even realizing it. As viruses can invade your computer and cause it to freeze, illogical and unhelpful thoughts, self-talk, mental images and emotions can take over your mind’s programs, overwhelm you, and cause you to freeze up. You’ve probably noticed that sometimes when you’re really stressed, you can’t think clearly, you feel overwhelmed, and you just shut down.
In the coming columns I’ll continue this discussion of how your mind thinks about stress and show you several simple but effective Rethink strategies for coping more effectively.
In the meantime remember to Stress Less and Live More.
Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more. www.drrichblonna.com.