Stress is something that we can all relate to. It pervades our lives and can build in such a way that we don’t even notice it developing. Often we are highly aware of short-term stressors but can, in fact, be unaware of how highly stressed we have become over the longer-term. It becomes part of the air we breathe, part of the way we think and part of our background experience – which makes it difficult for us to spot.
Whether it’s short or long-term stressors that we face, the one thing that holds true for all of us is the way in which the stress cycle operates.
At the heart of the stress cycle is our thinking. And the one thing that we really need to understand is the way in which our thinking is completely caught up with our emotional state. Think of it as “emotional thinking’. This means that if I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed, stressed by events and the amount of work I have to do – my mind will ‘think’ in those terms. And what do I mean by think? Well my mind will start running a ‘programme’ if you like. The emotional state in the background is STRESSED – so my mind will automatically run the STRESSED programme. It’s that simple. My mind will automatically – and unconsciously – start scanning for stressful events, it will pattern match and remind me of stressful memories and times in which my stress was as overwhelming as it is now. All this comes naturally and easily to my mind, because it is essentially what it is designed to do. We can’t take in every memory and thought that we’ve ever had, just like we can’t take in every detail of our current environment, it’s too much detail – so our mind scans and sifts and selects for what is currently relevant. So if stress is currently relevant – the mind will scan for other experiences and memories of stress.
Pattern matching in our thinking:
A good example of this is the accident that recently happened to a friend of mine. She was cycling with her friend at night. They were in full kit: hi-vis jackets, bike lights, the works. But the motorist who hit them said afterwards, “I’m sorry I didn’t see you. I was looking for cars.” And that’s what we do – we have to do it or we’d be overwhelmed by information. The motorist was looking for cars and her mind ignored the two cyclists. So we pattern match. What is it I need to be aware of? Lets look for that and patterns and events that link to this.
This happens emotionally too. If we have an exam or presentation and we are anxious about it – we can start to scan for all the other occasions when we were anxious. We remember what our fears were then, what happened and often, we can access instantly all the occasions when we feel things went wrong.
This is the stress cycle in action:
Because we are cognitively responding to our emotional state. And guess what – now the very thoughts that we are having, are also causing us stress! And what is stress? It’s the hormone adrenalin pumping around our system. This hormone is specifically designed to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things to our body – so now we will be pattern matching in terms of our physical experience and our emotional state, and selecting for physical sensations that worry us and create more anxiety in turn.
How to turn it around:
I hope the pattern and it’s cyclical nature is clear. The big question of course is how do we turn this around? One thing – AWARENESS. As soon as we are aware, we can consciously adjust. We can notice what we are doing, notice our emotional thinking and ask ourselves – is this helping? Is this true? Were there other occasions that are not simply springing to mind, where things went well. We can recognise our emotional thinking and make a decision to also look for other events that show that things can go well. We can accept that we might have to put a little effort into finding these memories, but that doesn’t mean that they are not true. It’s simply that in our emotional thinking, we have to work a little harder to find examples and memories which don’t fit with our current state. Just because they don’t spring to mind immediately – it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. The more we remember positive events and example – the more our stress levels drop and the easier it becomes to transform our thinking and find other examples that support our improving emotional state.