Breaking the Stress Habit

Well, summer is finally here. That means everyone is feeling healthy, happy and very relaxed, right? The sun is certainly nice to see.

However, if you’re like most people you still have your stressful life happening, there’s just no rain to blame for your state of mind. In fact, stress isn’t just a sideline health issue.

Estimates vary, but stress-related absenteeism from work costs employers billions of dollars annually. And while the societal cost is enormous, the toll it takes on each individual is, in many ways, beyond measure.Stress degrades our physical health, our emotional wellbeing, our relationships, and our ability to concentrate and recall information.

The typical approach to combating stress is through various kinds of stress management. This can include activities that range from vigorous exercise to quietly working in the garden. And such activities can certainly work to provide islands of relaxation in an otherwise tense life.

The problem with these approaches is not that they can’t reduce stress. The problem is that they acknowledge the reality of stress in the first place. Stress is an internal state, not an external one. There is no stress “out there” in the world. Rather, stress is in our *thoughts about* the world out there.

Thus, if we ever hope to actually reduce our experience of
stress in a lasting way, it can only be by changing how we think about our world. Stress management is thought management, and stress is a decision we make each moment we continue to feel it. It’s the decision – either conscious or unconscious – to continue the thought that’s causing stress in that moment. This is an uncomfortable truth, and in fact many people simply can’t accept it. “…but my job *is* stressful,” “…but my finances *make* me worry,” and on and on the list goes.

As long as we believe that stress is something that happens *to* us, rather than something caused *by* us, we’ve relinquished control over it. Changing how we think about our world is a much more daunting task than, say, going to the gym.

Changing how we think is not a decision we can make first thing in the morning: “Today I’m not going to let myself get angry at my boss.” Such a one-time vow is guaranteed to be broken, and is sure to leave you feeling even worse about yourself at the end of the day for having failed at your goal.

Breaking a stressful pattern of thinking is a decision that has to be made constantly, throughout the day, even several times *each minute*. We each have to interrupt that crazy fictional story that is playing in our head, stopping it over and over. Each time we interrupt it and bring our awareness back to what we’re actually doing in that moment (“I’m standing on the floor, I can hear people talking, I can feel the pen behind my ear, etc.), we create some emotional distance between ourselves and that stressful story.

Over time and after *hundreds* or even thousands of intentional interruptions of that story, we are able to see it as just a story. It seems like a lot of practice before seeing results, but what is your option? Going through life stressed by some internal story you can’t get to stop?

In doing this practice we also find that we’re spending much more of our time and awareness in the present moment of our lives as we’re living it, rather than spending it lost in that stressful story while our lives pass us by. Here is a simplified version of a practice that I have many patients do to help create that emotional distance from their anxious, depressing or stressful thoughts.

Thought control in 3 easy steps: 1) As often as you can remind yourself to do it, STOP what you’re thinking about. Literally, just stop. To assist you, set up a timer on your phone to “remind” you with a buzz every 20 minutes or so. As soon as it buzzes, interrupt whatever train of thought you were in at that moment. 2) CLASSIFY that thought, using very broad categories: “That was about me feeling incompetent.” “That was about me arguing with someone.” “That was about me thinking I’m stupid for some reason.” Etc. Whatever categories work for you.

The point of this step is to bring your awareness back to the present. Simply start narrating (to yourself, of course) what your immediate experience is, “I’m sitting at my desk, I can hear the cars outside, I feel a slight breeze on my arms, etc.” Keep the narration going as long as you can.

Remember, this moment is your reality, the life you’re actually living. If you are like everyone else, you’ll stick with that present-moment narration for maybe 20 seconds, then you’ll get lost in your stressful story again. That’s just fine. In 20 minutes, your buzzer will remind you to do it all over again. Repeat that exercise, every 20 minutes you are awake, for the rest of your life.  

Image courtesy Lululemonathletica