Life is full of challenges and obstacles such as financial strain, job issues, relationship breakdown, divorce, chronic illness or the loss of a loved one. Then, there are the day to day routines like family, kids, work, study, errands, traffic, groceries, deadlines, budgeting. Add to this, the pressure of needing to be seen as “having it all together”, and it can all have the potential to derail us where we feel like we just can’t cope anymore! This is where stress can have a negative impact on our mental and physical health and overall quality of life.
So, why is it that some of us have the ability to cope and bounce back from life’s pressures, while others simply feel like they’re constantly drowning and just can’t cope?! The reality is that each of us interprets similar situations differently based on how we see the world. What one person perceives to be a stressful situation, another may not.
We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” – Anais Nin
In every moment our minds are constantly trying to make sense of the world by forming judgements, assumptions and opinions about every situation, event or interaction. These judgements and assumptions are a culmination of our childhood, past experiences, character traits, culture, values, religion etc – all of which help us form our beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world around us. It is as though we are looking at the world through a distorted or coloured lens – and each of us has our own individual prescription.
Therefore, what we see is not actually reality but our perception of reality based on the lens we’re looking through.
By changing the way we look at stressful situations, we can change our experience of them, which in turn can positively impact our body and our behaviours. Of course, I’m not saying we should always put a positive spin on everything – the good, the bad and the ugly will happen in life and it’s completely normal and healthy to admit that life sometimes does suck. But when we’re freaked out over insignificant issues like a bad hair day or running late for an appointment; reframing the situation can lessen the negative impact on our mind and body and improve our health, happiness and overall quality of life.
1. Take a helicopter view
Have you ever had a situation where someone you know walked past you in the street, at your workplace or at your child’s school, but didn’t acknowledge you? How did you feel? Did you think to yourself “What have I done? I must’ve offended him/her and now he’s/she’s not talking to me!” This instant reaction makes you feel anxious, your heart starts pounding as you think “OMG, she doesn’t like me anymore!” You’ve made an assumption about what that person is thinking based solely on their behaviour, without actually checking in to see whether this assumption is correct. All of a sudden this small non issue has become far worse than it actually is, when in reality that friend may simply have been distracted, may not have seen you and is in no way feeling offended.
When we’re emotionally involved, it’s very difficult to “see the forest for the trees”. The helicopter view is a metaphor referring to the ability to rise above the specifics of a situation and see it in its overall context. It is the ability to see the bigger picture and what’s really happening, rather than our perception from a distorted view. Taking this view can help you to challenge your own, often unhelpful thoughts and judgements and see things in a more balanced and realistic way:
AWARENESS: What is really happening?
PERSPECTIVE: How can I look at this situation differently from a more objective, balanced and rational view?
CHOICE: What is the most helpful action I can take?
2. Challenge your assumptions
How many times have you thought you’ve screwed up, said the wrong thing or done something wrong? In a work situation, your boss calls you into his office and you’re convinced you’re about to be fired, then “I won’t be able to pay the bills, I’ll lose the house, my wife/husband will divorce me!” But is your perception of what’s happening actually true and correct? Hey, we’re all human – we all make mistakes, maybe your boss doesn’t think you did anything wrong at all?
So when your mind starts racing and you start catastrophising and jumping to conclusions, take a few deep breaths (I know you’ve heard this before, but how often do you actually do it? And, it activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system – this is opposite to the fight, flight response helping your body to calm down and relax), challenge your assumptions and look at things from different perspectives. Ask yourself:
“Is what I’m thinking really true? And, what is the evidence for or against these thoughts?
Could there be another way to look at this situation?
Can I identify any negative thinking patterns that I may be showing? (eg: am I catastrophising or taking things personally etc?)
Are there any alternative ways of looking at this situation that are more helpful and realistic?
What can I learn from this so I can do something different next time?”
3. Reframe stress as helpful
Many of us believe that all stress is bad, when in fact we need a little stress in our lives. Short bursts of stress (called Eustress) can give us the energy and motivation to help finish a certain task on time, cram for an exam or run the last kilometre of a marathon. I know that when I’m a little stressed, instead of sticking my head in the sand or procrastinating, I use it as an opportunity to propel me forward and face my challenges head on. As a result of the “fire in my belly”, my productivity increases and I do what I need to do to get the job done.
So the next time your heart starts racing before an important meeting, a job interview or a presentation in front of your peers, reframe your nervousness as enthusiasm and let those butterflies fly in formation. When you consciously realise that you’re excited, not anxious, you give your body the keys to interpret those feelings as helpful rather than harmful, which in turn can positively change your physiology. This, then gives you the opportunity to focus on the potential of the situation such as increasing your profile, boosting your career prospects or networking and developing new connections.
4. Increase your personal power
“If only my partner would change then everything would be great between us!”, “Until she shows me that she loves me I will never be worth anything.” Feeling powerless and at the mercy of others and circumstances when it comes to our happiness and fulfilment, can be the greatest source of stress for many. Your perception of powerlessness prevents you from taking responsibility or being accountable for your own happiness because you believe that your happiness depends on the actions of others. You cannot blame or hold others responsible for your un/happiness, nor can they “make” you feel a certain way.
You do not have the ability to control how others think, feel and behave, you only have the ability to control your own. So, instead of being a passenger and waiting for someone to ‘make you happy’, get back into the drivers seat of your life. Make a conscious effort to focus your energy on looking for solutions to improve your own health, happiness and life, rather than getting stuck on problems that you have no control over. Set daily goals that are realistic and achievable and, no matter how small, take action.
5. Develop a resilient, problem-solving mindset
Personal resilience is your ability to thrive, no matter what life throws at you and is crucial to your mental and physical wellbeing. One of the key skills to developing resilience is to develop mental flexibility. Similar to physical flexibility, this type of thinking requires challenging your mind to look for options and possibilities of a situation rather than making excuses, looking for problems, becoming defensive or having a rigid or narrow point of view. This leads to better problem-solving skills, improved creativity and an enhanced ability to handle pressure and setbacks.
Those with a fixed mindset try to avoid stress by sticking their head in the sand, Their rigid and restrictive points of view has them seeing things in black and white, “should’s“ and “shouldn’ts, which only amplifies the body’s stress response and makes feelings of stress and anxiety worse and longer lasting. Whereas, the positive emotions associated with a resilient mindset have been shown to reduce the body’s stress response and in turn, create positive behaviours conducive to a healthy, happy life.
6. Remember, all stress isn’t necessarily bad for us
Well known psychologist Richard Lazarus once said “stress occurs when an individual perceives that the demands of an external situation are beyond his or her perceived ability to cope with them”. This highlights that stress is not only caused by what happens to us, but by how we perceive these situations and in turn, our ability to deal with issues associated with stress.
If we understand that stress is our response to how we perceive situations and events in our life, then our ability to reduce stress is possible. It is through this control we have over our perception of stress that we can change how stress impacts our health, happiness and overall quality of life.