Millions of Americans struggle with unhealthy levels of stress. Stress isn’t just destructive to our mental health but to our physical health as well. It weakens our immune systems and contributes to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and other illnesses. These facts are important, but reading about them, or even relaying them, admittedly makes me feel a little, well… stressed. Too often reflecting on our stress just makes us feel worse. So rather than scare you straight when it comes to stress, I thought I would offer a real solution to those nagging (at times terrorizing) thoughts that lead to stress.
The mere mention of the word stress is enough to make our heads spin with thoughts of to-do lists, meetings, schedules, social calendars, kids, work, money. Whatever the trigger mechanism is, it’s always there to distract us from any potential sense of calm. When we allow our negative thoughts to take over, we spend precious energy handling the symptoms of stress instead of solving the problem or dealing with what’s really making us feel such pressure or worry.
These negative thoughts tell us when to worry and what to worry about, but never do they offer us a real solution to our problems. If we were to challenge these negative thoughts, we would soon realize that not only is this destructive thought process amplifying our stress levels but it is actually causing us much of our anxiety in the first place.
For example, many of us feel concern when we have more things we need to do or want to do than we believe we can get done. Very often, however, we are placing too much pressure on ourselves and setting our expectations too high. In effect we are setting ourselves up, and literally scheduling ourselves out, to get stressed. When we set our standards too high, we often set ourselves up to later become a target for our critical inner voice. We start to have self-critical thoughts like: What is wrong with you? You never give 100 percent to anything. Can’t you just get one thing right? You’re such a failure!
Even when times are tough or the pressure being placed on us is external, we can seek out an inner sense of calm by quieting those inner voices that exacerbate the problem. This is not meant to undermine the fact we all have real concerns about our lives. We all struggle at some point with our careers, our families and our futures. Every one of us has concerns at one time or another about keeping a job, falling in love or raising our kids. However, what we actually feel about these things is usually never as bad as what our critical inner voice is telling us to feel about these things.
For example, when we lose a job, we may have thoughts like: What are you going to do now? You can’t do anything. How humiliating!
When we go through a break up with a partner, we may hear voices such as: See? No one could ever love you. You’re going to wind up alone.
Even an event as simple as forgetting to mail a letter can get our self-attacks going: You’re so irresponsible. How are you ever going to get anything done?
These thoughts impair us in our actions and lead us to feel demoralized and even more stressed out. We can interrupt this cycle by becoming more aware of the thoughts that are propelling our feelings of worry. For example, a friend of mine noticed she was waking up in a bad mood every morning. Feeling overwhelmed and rushed, her morning mood was slowly infiltrating her whole day. Snapping at people, overdosing on caffeine and rubbing her head to the point of almost literally tearing her hair out, she knew something had to change.
To understand her 7 a.m. stress, I suggested my friend write down all the thoughts she was having before she went to bed. When my friend did this, she noticed her head was full of vicious self-attacks. Her negative thoughts surfaced every night when she finally took a rest from pushing herself through her day. My friend recounted her thoughts to me: What did you actually accomplish today? You’re no closer to your goals then you were yesterday. Everyone hates you. You snap at everybody. Are you even doing a good job? What’s so important about what you do anyway. You never make time for anyone. You’re so selfish. You’d better work harder tomorrow.
When my friend told me her attacks, I was appalled. “No wonder you’ve been feeling under pressure in the morning. You’re tearing yourself apart right before you go to bed.” As soon as my friend realized this pattern, she started to feel compassion for herself and noticed herself feeling relieved of her morning anxiety.
To fully rid oneself of the critical inner voice, one must not only identify the negative thoughts but stand up to them. Putting our voices in the second person can help us make this initial separation. Try to write down your critical thoughts, first as “I” statements, then as “you” statements. If you have thoughts of feeling stupid, write down “You are so stupid.” Next, stand up to this internal enemy by writing down responses to your critical thoughts with the more realistic perspective of a compassionate friend. For example, you could write, “I am not stupid. Anyone can make a mistake. I have a lot of areas in which I am intelligent and confident.” The intention here is not to build yourself up, but to gain a more realistic view of yourself.
Finally, think about what the actions are that could counter your critical inner voices. When my friend had an attack that she was snapping at people, it didn’t help that she was acting on her self-critical thoughts by getting moody and lashing out at co-workers. Avoid actions that will lead you to feel worse. If eating three slices of pizza relieves you after a stressful day only to leave you later stressing over your weight, it’s best not to use that behavior as a coping mechanism. Remember the critical inner voice is tricky and can sound soothing or friendly as it lures you into self-destructive behaviors. Have that second glass of wine. Just stay home and relax on your own. Later on that voice will punish you with thoughts like: There you go having another drink. You can’t stick to anything. What a loner. You’ll never meet anyone.
The voice can also tell us that we are being victimized. When we have thoughts like, Why is everyone walking all over you? No one else does anything around here, we put ourselves in a powerless position and blame others for the pressure we’ve put ourselves under.
Dealing with stress means taking our own side without feeling like a victim. It means empowering ourselves against our inner critic and not allowing that critic to dictate our lifestyle. That critic will put up a fuss when we act against it and cause us anxiety over the changes we make in our lives. However, the more we persevere and the longer these negative voices in our heads are quieted, the better able we are to live in the moment without worrying about the past or the future. We can then deal with everything in our lives one moment, one step, one deep breath and one thought at a time.