“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:
the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Your mother warned you there’d be days like these. The minutes are ticking away until your big meeting starts, and here you are, stuck in traffic – again. Cars are moving at a snail’s pace, but the thoughts keep racing through your mind. “Hmm, did I lock the front door..? Ooh, I shouldn’t forget to pick up the dry-cleaning on my way home tonight. And we really must find the time to visit aunt Jessie in the hospital this weekend. Maybe after we’ve finished painting the nursery..? Argh, move already, I’m running late!”
You can feel the tension build up in your body. And the day has only just begun.
Life is a continuous string of events, from everyday challenges and important milestones to defining moments and daily disruptions. Although there are certain situations that everyone finds upsetting and taxing – losing a loved one, relationship troubles, unemployment or living with chronic illness – whether or not you get stressed following a negative event also depends on how you perceive that situation.
Stress is triggered by external life events and small daily hassles. When you experience more frequent and severe stressors in life, you have an increased risk of developing serious health problems like heart disease, obesity, digestive problems or anxiety. But this relation doesn’t explain why plenty of people thrive in high-pressure jobs or demanding circumstances. Why do some individuals get sick and depressed when something stressful happens while others do not?
All day long, we immediately and unconsciously assess how the situation at hand will affect our lives. This intuitive process of evaluation is called cognitive appraisal. First, we try to figure out whether or not that work deadline or that nagging pain threatens our goals, our values or our beliefs about the world. If we interpret the incident as negative, we then automatically assess what – if anything – can be done to improve the situation.
The meaning you give to specific events plays a vital role in how stress affects your body and mind. Let’s say you’ve had an argument with your partner. Whether you perceive that fight as an important incident or something trivial that will pass, determines if you’ll stay upset about it and lay awake at night worrying. What’s more, interpreting your falling out either as a threat to your relationship or as a challenge you can overcome together strongly influences how you’ll chose to cope with the situation.
Changing the way you look at a stressful event can therefore change your experience of it – and the effect it has on your wellbeing.
Of course I’m not saying you should always put a positive spin on truly terrible experiences. Bad things will happen in life and it’s completely normal and healthy to admit when life sucks. But when you’re freaked out over insignificant troubles like an awful haircut or running late, reframing the stressful situation can lessen the negative impact of daily hassles on your health and happiness.
7 Psychological Tricks to Change How Stress Affects Your Health
1. Ask yourself: Will this matter in a month or a year from now?
Having an never-ending to-do list or dealing with difficult people feels overwhelming. It can be refreshing to ask yourself: Does it really matter, in the grand scheme of things? Looking at the bigger picture, is this issue really worth a sleepless night and pounding heart? It’s easy to lose perspective on the little worries that take up your time and energy.
2. Test your own thoughts
When something happens in your life, you quickly assess what the outcome of the situations could be: irrelevant, positive or stressful. For example, if you screwed up a job interview or work assignment, it might feel like the end of your career. But is that perception actually true and accurate? Perhaps your boss doesn’t think you did such a bad job, or they see your blunder as a one-off. Hey, we all make mistakes. So when your mind keeps going over and over what happened, you should test your own thoughts: Is what I’m thinking true? Could there be another way to look at this situation that’s just as accurate?
3. Reframe a threat as a challenge
There are two ways to look at a stressful event: you can see it as a negative incident that could potentially harm you or your loved ones in the future or you could view it as a challenge that you can overcome. For instance, giving a speech can be a nerve-wracking affair that makes you feel like a sweating and stuttering failure, but it could also be an amazing opportunity to boost your career. When you think of demanding occasions as a threat, it draws your attention to your shortcomings, while reframing the situation as a challenge reminds you of your potential and your ability to take action and make changes. So try to see life as a continuous learning experience. There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.
4. Develop a problem-solving mindset
Next, ask yourself: “What are the possibilities to effectively deal with this stress?” Make a (mental) list of all the resources and skills you have to tackle your difficulties. If you’re completely overwhelmed from juggling a full-time job, family and household, you could ask your partner to help out around the house or work out a play-date schedule with your best friends. Maybe you have the financial means to occasionally hire a babysitter or use a home delivery service for your groceries. And don’t overlook your talents for planning and organising, making quick decisions or being flexible!
5. Increase your sense of personal control
Don’t become a victim of your circumstances. Having a sense of power over your life helps you to cope better with distressing situations. Research suggests that it’s this perception of personal control rather than an actual behavioural control that reduces the physical symptoms of stress. So focus your thoughts and energy on the things you can influence, by looking for solutions, setting achievable goals and taking action on what you can change.
6. Do the Rocking Chair Test
Unfortunately, not all of your problems will be easy to solve. When you’re facing a tough dilemma or a blind alley, it can be valuable to do the ‘Rocking Chair Test‘: “Looking back on your own life, what would your 90-year old self advise you to do right now?” Changing your perspective can force a mental break-through if you’re stuck in the moment, feeling there’s no way out. Sometimes when you focus on what really matters to you – the people you love, your ultimate goals, values to live by – you get a better feel for how you can best deal with an impossible situation.
7. Remember, stress isn’t necessarily bad for you
Not all kinds of stress are bad for you. Sometimes getting fired up is crucial for your wellbeing – that fight-or-flight response is the main reason our ancestors survived encounters with bears and lions. But even in our 21st century urban society, experiencing tunnel vision and blood rushing through your body can be a good thing. The sweaty anxiety before taking an important test or that pounding heart when you’re summing up the courage to ask someone out on a date? That’s just your body gearing up to perform at its best. Stress is mostly harmful for your health when your nervous system is constantly activated, without enough time for relaxation.
Way back in 1966, the renowned psychologist Richard Lazarus stated that “stress occurs when an individual perceives that the demands of an external situation are beyond his or her perceived ability to cope with them”. It’s a very formal way to define such a common sensation, but this definition highlights that stress isn’t solely caused by what happens to us, but also by how we interpret these events and our capability to deal with problems.
It’s through this control we have over our perception of distressing incidents that we can change how stress impacts our health and happiness.
Have you ever tried reframing stress to better deal with everyday hassles? What tricks worked for you? Please share your thoughts, experiences and advice in the comments.
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