Some things, say redundancy and divorce, are close to being objectively stressful. But given that it’s also possible to feel happy about both of those things, we can say that all stress is a product of the mind, and specifically our ability to construct ‘paper dragons’.
In other words, stress happens because of what we think about what is happening, rather than what is happening. That’s why ultimately, we can’t handle stress without learning to ‘think about thinking’ (sometimes called meta cognition). The practice of mindfulness eventually helps us to stop over-identifying with thoughts.
The following are stress-busting questions you can use alongside a mindfulness practice.
1. ‘What am I making this mean?’
No experience inherently means anything: there is life and our running commentary of it, and those are two separate things.
It is useful to recall this during times of stress. Ask yourself what it is you’re telling yourself about whatever is going on. As well as helping you to handle stress, you will improve your awareness of your regular thought processes and evaluate the usefulness of those.
2. ‘What am I actually feeling?’
Stress isn’t an emotion; it is a state of being wound up or a feeling of strain or pressure.
Search for the real emotion or state that is underneath the quality you recognize as ‘stress’. Are you physically tired, frustrated with someone – sad?
As well as helping you to handle stress, this should help you to improve your emotional self-awareness.
3. ‘Am I overeacting’?
It is a human tendency to take isolated incidents and blow them up into catastrophe. Pessimists are especially prone to doing this.
Therefore to handle stress better, learn to observe yourself over-reacting. Even if you’re unable to stop yourself the first few times, your ability to do that should improve over time.
4. ‘Can I see this differently?’
Often it’s useful to stay with negative emotions in order to let an experience grow us as a person. Adversity can be strengthening.
But we also need the ability to reframe and see the blessings in an experience. That takes the humility to recognize that we don’t know that whatever is happening is necessarily bad in the long run.
The other thing to lose is thinking and talking in terms of ‘have to’ or ‘should’. In actuality, none of us need to do any of the things we do: people choose not to work jobs or pay the mortgage all the time. You may not want the consequences of doing either of those things, but you have the decision.
Instead of telling yourself you ‘have to’, say ‘I am choosing based on the values that I have’. The effects on your stress levels might be immediate.
5. ‘Is there something I can do right now?’
Assuming you have some clarity on what you are really worried about, then there is probably something obvious you can do right away to address the situation.
It might be booking a day off or having a conversation with someone. Whatever it is, there is likely to be something that can be done to lighten the load within the next 5 minutes.
Handle stress by building a mindfulness practice, and by asking yourself these 5 questions:
- ‘What am I making this mean?’
- ‘What am I really feeling?’
- ‘Am I overreacting?’
- ‘Can I see this differently?’
- ‘What can I do about this right now?’