Stress Management is a Dish Best Served Cool
By Karen Patterson-Stewart, Ph.D.
Distress or negative stress occurs when we experience those life events that create a negative reaction in our physical, mental and emotional well-being such as a lay-off notice, divorce, or thwarted ambitions. We cannot control the occurrence of negative life events but we can control our reactions to them. Stress can be managed.
In the old movie, “Cool Hand Luke,” the main character, played by Paul Newman, was always breaking out of prison and getting caught. Finally, the warden famously said: “What we have is a failure to communicate. . . You’re gonna get your mind right.” That statement is also true for managing stress. An important part of effective stress management is mental preparation to deal with the stressful situations that will inevitably appear in our lives. Here are three tips that can help to “get your mind right” or cognitively manage stress.
Beware of Negative Self-talk. Sometimes we find ourselves in stressful situations because of something we have done. A relationship ends badly and you are at least partially to blame. You received a poor evaluation on a project at work. Perhaps you made a bad financial decision and now, you have to deal with consequences. However, allowing negative thoughts to berate you is not helpful. Negative self-talk such as “I am stupid, I am not good enough, I always fail,” are debilitating internal statements that zap your energy for dealing with stressful events.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy suggests reframing these negative statements. “I am stupid,” becomes “I did something wrong, I made a mistake,” or if you insist on using the word stupid, at least reframe it to “I did something stupid.” I will always remember the gift of advice my mother gave me about making mistakes. She said: “Everybody stands on the corner of Fool’s Highway and Heartbreak Boulevard. Just don’t build a house there.” Her words reminded me that as human beings, no one escapes failure. We do not have to allow our mistakes to define us. Here’s a novel idea. Give yourself a break and forgive yourself. Then, generate positive thoughts about specific things you have accomplished. Get your mind right and remember times you demonstrated excellent performance on your job. You or people you know have been successful in getting out of debt. A relationship ended but there are people in your life who think you are awesome.
Catastrophizing Negative Events. “If I fail this exam, my life is a failure” or “If this relationship doesn’t work, I will never find the right mate” are examples of catastrophizing stressful events. These “doom and gloom” thoughts are mental bullies that need to be put in check. Failing an important exam is significantly unpleasant but does it doom you to a whole life of failure? Don’t allow these thoughts to keep you from exploring your alternatives. Surely there are others who didn’t do well the first time and needed a second chance. Get your mind right and gather objective information on how you can improve your performance. Re-take, do-over, try again, take another chance are options that were created for all of us.
“If this relationship doesn’t work, I will never find a mate.” Losing a relationship can be very unpleasant but does it really mean you are doomed to a life of loneliness? Perhaps, you could examine your selection process of a mate. What about the possibility that you could learn to authentically enjoy being your wonderful, single self until the mate you deserve comes into your life?
Your Feelings Are Not The Boss of You. Emotions color our lives. Who doesn’t enjoy feeling happiness, love, enthusiasm? However, when a stressful event occurs and negative feeling like anger, disappointment or frustration are allowed to take control of our reactions, the situation often gets worse. Physical stress management techniques such as breathing and relaxation exercises to calm down or going for a walk to gather your thoughts can be helpful. Talk to the “right” person and not your friend who will ride shot-gun with you to key your ex-boyfriend’s (boss’s or co-worker’s) car but one who will listen and help you find positive solutions. You will get better results if you stop and relax, think and take action rather than allowing your feelings to lead your actions before thinking. Remember, stress management is a dish best served cool.
Dr. Stewart has taught at multiple universities in the field of counseling, provided consulting and training services to major corporations and government agencies. She also serves as a life coach.