Is stress being caused by your life, or your thinking?
While life situations can be the cause of our stress, it’s really important to explore how our thinking can contribute to creating unnecessary stress in our lives. Perhaps you are a perfectionist at work, maybe you are too hard on yourself when you are late to an appointment, or maybe you can’t accept some aspect of an important relationship in your life.
In this article, we’re going to explore the mental patterns and schemas that are likely to become problematic over time and some simple ways you can begin to live more mindfully and eliminate unnecessary stress from your life.
What story do you tell yourself?
Repetitive patterns of thought, and underlying schemas of beliefs, can be hard to spot at first. However through mindfulness practices of slowing down, taking time to observe your breathing and becoming more aware of the story you tell yourself, you’ll be able to see how your own mind works in all kinds of situations.
Let’s take for example, two people, John and Jane, who are running late for work (and they haven’t been late for a long time). Jane has compassion towards herself and realises that her boss has also been late due to traffic. Jane moves forward with confidence, apologises to her coworkers when she arrives and doesn’t give the situation any more of her attention thereafter.
Now, John has a very different reaction. He is hard on himself, and has self-talk running in his mind along the lines of “come on John, you never get anything right do you?”. John makes little eye contact with his coworkers, thinking they’ll make remarks about being late, and spends the rest of the day slightly paranoid that his boss is going to pull him up on it.
What is the story that each person is telling themselves? Well, Jane’s story features understanding and compassion for herself and others, along with a world view that we all have problems from time to time but that we can face up to them and move beyond them. While the story that John tells himself is that he isn’t good enough, he is always messing up and that other people are out to get him.
What are some of the mental stories that get us into trouble?
There are so many mental attitudes towards life that can generate unnecessary stress in life. Some people believe they “have to work really hard” in life to get ahead in their careers. Then there single women who believe “all the good men are taken”. While many people don’t take their relationship to the next level because “there are so many fish in the sea” and thereby never experience the joy of commitment. Some people believe eating a healthy amount “makes them look fat”, when in fact, their overly lean diet is pushing them into anorexia. Some people want to be “somebody” in society through major achievements, in the hope that they will feel validated or experience some unique form of high. And they do this at the cost of true sources of emotional nourishment in their life, like close family members and friends.
Can we change these stories?
Absolutely, but it can take some work. Obstacles to true mindfulness, include being judgemental, being in a state of non-acceptance and allowing the rumination of thoughts through one’s mind.
Compassion and aiming to understand another person, as opposed to aiming to agree with everyone all the time (or have others constantly agree with you) will help reduce the sharp edge of judgement.
Radical acceptance is often one of the goals we have in therapy. By working one-on-one in a therapeutic setting, we’re able to help our client enter into a state of acceptance about something in their lives that they previously weren’t able to accept. For example, some people can’t accept that their partner wanted a divorce. And some people simply can’t get over the death of a loved one. Through true acceptance of reality, a lot of stress and energy can be released, to start living life anew.
Rumination is another habit that often needs to be broken or released. This a repetitive process of thinking, where someone is trying to resolve a situation through the use of their mind. They will mull over events again and again, alongside re-experiencing the negative feelings associated with the matter. Rumination is a process that keeps people stuck in stressful situations or problems, as this type of thinking doesn’t free the mind to engage in more creative types of thinking that will actually lead to real-life solutions.