Stress doesn’t “just happen” to anyone. It isn’t an event that occurs outside the individual. It is an internal process, and, like all internal processes, stress begins in our mind. How can you harness the power of your mind to keep stress from leading to distress? It all begins with the ABCs. The ABCs of mental management of stress are Awareness, Belief, and Coping. If you can master this mental process, you have taken a big step on the path to wellness.
Awareness is the key to any change process. Until you are able to make the connection between those feelings of anxiety, obsessive behaviors, or just plain treating yourself badly and stress, you can’t begin to change. Awareness means learning to pay attention to what is going on in your body and mind. It means paying attention to how you act and how you react. It means learning what triggers negative reactions in yourself. Finally, it means learning to catch yourself before you enter into destructive behaviors.
Not being aware of your reactions to stress triggers can be as deadly as not being aware of traffic before stepping of the curb. Researchers tell us that it takes only 30 seconds for the human body to move into a full scale stress reaction. What this means is that within 30 seconds of reacting in anger, you are allowing potentially lethal chemical and physiological changes to begin in your body. If you think of stress reactions as near-death experiences, you begin to see the tremendous impact of lack of awareness of our reactions to the many stressors in our daily lives.
Learn to listen to your body. Become aware of the signs of stress. Do you feel your muscles begin to tense when you approach that individual who always seems to push your buttons? Does the idea of balancing your checkbook make your mind go blank? These are signs of stress. Be aware of what is happening. Be aware of when it happens. This is the step in managing your stress.
But awareness is more than being conscious of events and reactions. It also means being alert to what is going on in your mind. What messages are you sending yourself in stressful situations? Become aware of what those messages are. You might want to keep a simple stress diary. Carry a small note pad or a few index cards with you. When you feel yourself begin to react, write down what triggered the response and how you responded. Try to capture what you are thinking at that moment. This information will help you select the most appropriate coping techniques for stress in your life.
Finally, awareness includes awareness that something is wrong with your thinking and behavior. You must be aware that there are other ways to think and act. You must be aware that your current process may not be the best for you. Without the awareness that there is a problem and awareness that you have other choices, there is no possibility of change.
Once you are aware of the need for change, you must believe that you have the power to change. You must believe that what you think, say, and do influences your well-being.
Stress is a reaction, not an event. Your reactions are governed by your beliefs about yourself and about the world. Part of controlling stress comes from what you believe about your ability to control your thoughts and your life. If, for example, your boss or spouse or child approaches you in an aggressive, angry manner, you can react in one of two ways. You can believe that you have a problem or are at fault or you can believe that they have a problem or are out of control.
Your belief determines who has control over your life in that moment. If you allow yourself to become angry or to feel that you must have done something wrong, you are triggering a stress reaction. As you begin to react physically to the situation, you are also giving control over to the other person. In effect, you are putting your life in the palm of their hand. Is this what you want to do?
If you believe in yourself and your ability to remain calm, enter into discussion and resolve the problems in your life, you can remain in control. You will not allow that stress reaction to begin. If you believe yourself to be capable of handling anything life hands you, you will be able to handle any problem. This doesn’t mean that life will be wonderful all the time. What it does mean is that if you believe in yourself, you can minimize the effects of negative stress and make the best use of all your resources to meet challenges head on.
When you are aware of your stress triggers and believe that you can reduce the negative effects of stress through your own thoughts and actions, you are ready to begin to cope with stress. Coping with stress means investigating different strategies for stress management and finding the ones that work best for you. This could include a wide range of physical and mental activities – from heading to the gym to visualizing and creating counters.