0025 - Reframe your stressful thoughts
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
In my article how full is your stress bucket, I explained that a little bit of stress is good for us but that high chronic stress can wreak havoc on our health and well-being. I also wrote about relaxation techniques and mindfulness to alleviate the symptoms of stress.
Today's article is about reframing: a way of considering events or thoughts from a different perspective to find more positive alternatives, to achieve a more favourable state of mind and reach better outcomes. We are free to reframe any thought we have. We can decide how to interpret past, present or future events, to feel better, be happier and more successful.
The genesis of stressful thoughts
Our brain is skewed towards negative thinking and our mind is constantly producing negative thoughts. This is an instinctive reaction to remember negative experiences and avoid them, should the same situation arise again. And yet, with hindsight, these stressful things we imagine rarely happen.
Events or situations do not have an inherent meaning. The meaning comes from the way we interpret the situation, depending on our past experiences, beliefs, biases, preferences and individual circumstances. What somebody finds stressful can be of no importance or even enjoyable for somebody else. Public speaking or bungee jumping, for instance, can make some people sick when others find it fun.
Our thoughts are just our interpretation, often subconscious, of a reality or a possibility. Unfortunately, our brain and body cannot differentiate between a situation that is real or just imagined and we can feel real stress and pain from mere thoughts, which in turn affects how we think and act.
Our thoughts are our reality, good or bad. To reduce our stress and anxiety, we need to change how we think.
How does reframing work?
When something really terrible happens (or might happen), it is normal to feel anxious, sad or depressed. However, it is still possible to modify our perception of the situation to attenuate the negative emotion. It does not mean that we do not care or pretend everything is wonderful. Reframing is about shifting to a more resourceful and favourable state of mind, to feel better and find better ways to deal with the situation.
It is a very useful technique when we cannot eliminate the source of stress, for things that we cannot control. Instead of feeling like a victim, we consciously assign a more helpful meaning to the circumstances. Instead of reacting from a place of stress (fight, flight or freeze), we can make more rational decisions, followed by actions, which generally leads to better results.
Reframing is like a magic power that opens new opportunities. We can decide how we want to see the world and ourselves, to move to the direction of our choice. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and anxious, we can focus on understanding the problem and take action.
What the research says
Many research papers have been published on positive reframing and optimism. This is a summary of their findings:
Reframing our thoughts and beliefs transform us from passive onlookers to powerful creators, allowing us to re-write the code of our reality. It lowers our stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces depression and anxiety. It improves our well-being, satisfaction and quality of life. It promotes adaptive behaviours and cognitive responses that improve our problem-solving capacity. It enables us to adapt successfully to stressful life events and to better cope with personal failures.
The use of positive words facilitates positive reframing and lowers stress.
Optimism is associated with a 15% longer lifespan and 50 to 70% greater odds of reaching 85 years old. It allows us to regulate our emotions and behaviours to bounce back from difficulties more effectively. It makes us more energetic and task-focused, and generally more successful in life (education, socioeconomic status and relationships). It pushes us to proactively adopt healthier habits, exercise more and smoke less. And optimism can be learnt with simple techniques.
On the other hand, those who feel very stressed and think it impacts their health have a 43% increased risk of premature death.
In other words, the studies indicate that positive reframing and optimism are a bit like self-fulfilling prophecies. So, try positive reframing, with this 4-step technique.
Step 1 - Identify your stressful thoughts
Our subconscious thoughts control up to 85% of our behaviours and about 80% of these thoughts are negative. Imagine the damage that this can do. But once we become aware of them, we can understand that they are not the reality. We can choose which thoughts are helpful or not, which thoughts we want to let go, and which thoughts we want to act upon.
So, take a few minutes every day to search for what is going on in your head. Is there anything worrying, annoying or frustrating you? Do you notice any tension, pain or discomfort arising in your body from any thought? Take note of all the thoughts that are draining or make you feel anxious.
Step 2- Challenge your assumptions
Once you become aware of a negative thought, ask yourself whether it is an objective reflection of the truth (i.e. of mere facts) or whether it is distorted by your personal beliefs or assumptions. In particular, does your thought involve one of the common cognitive distortions listed below?
Over-generalisation is a course of thinking where you generalise one single event or experience to all the events that have ever happened or will happen in the future. This typically applies to thoughts than contain words such as "always", "never" or "impossible". The best way to stop over-generalising is to think of counter-examples, to gain some perspective by recognising this is an isolated incident.
Filtering happens when you focus on all the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positives. To deal with this distortion, list several positive aspects of the situation. For instance, when you receive a negative feedback and start stressing about it, think about all the positive comments that you have also received for the same or a similar situation.
Catastrophising is when you automatically anticipate the worst or make a huge issue of something small. There are two solutions to challenge this distortion: First, you don't know what the future will bring, so there is no reason to believe that the worst will happen. Second, if you freak out over something insignificant such as running late or a horrible stain on your business suit, just think how silly this is: it is just a temporary frustration without long-term consequences. You will probably have forgotten about it in a week or even laugh about it. Seriously, it is not the end of the world and there are so many more serious problems that you could be facing. Put in perspective, think about all the good things you have in your life (health, family, job, house...). Ask yourself the question: Will this really matter in a week, 3 months or a year from now?
Polarising means that you see things only as either good or bad, without middle ground. You think that if something is not perfect, it is a total failure. Perfectionists tend to think that way. However, life is not black and white. One way to address this type of thoughts is, again, to find a few positive aspects of the situation. For example, there was this nice birthday cake at the office and you had a large piece of it. You think your day is ruined, that you completely messed up your diet, that you have no will-power... and end up having a second piece of cake, and a third. Well, instead, you could think that you had one piece of cake, enjoyed it and had a good time with your colleagues. It was just one exception and you will return to your clean nutrition for the rest of the day.
Personalising happens when you automatically blame yourself when something bad occurs. But life is not that simple. Acknowledge that many things are out of your control. It can be your mistake sometimes, but not always. This doesn’t mean finding excuses for everything and never taking responsibility for your mistakes, but there is a middle ground. If your thoughts often revolve around you not being good or capable enough, think about a few uncontrollable factors that may have contributed to the situation. For instance, if you perform badly at work, it does not mean that you are worthless or incompetent. May be you did not spend enough time preparing, or you had family issues that prevented you from focusing on the task. May be you were too tired. Instead of thinking that you are not good enough, take notes of why this happened and remember not to make the same mistake next time. Or ask yourself the question "what would I tell my best friend if he/she was in that situation?". We are typically much more objective and positive with others than with ourselves.
Step 3 - Use milder words
Another technique to tame stressful thoughts is to use words or behaviours that are more neutral. The research shows that our posture, smile, words and attitude impact how we feel.
When you feel stressed and tense, consciously relax your neck and shoulders and smile. You will immediately feel better. This works thanks to the mind-body connection. A bit like the happy-dog-wagging-his-tail story: is he wagging his tail because he is happy or is he happy because he is wagging his tail?
The same works with words. If you think: "this is a disaster, I don't know what to do", "something terrible is going to happen"... it will fuel your stress. Instead, rephrase what you think: "although the situation is tough, although I am anxious or scared, I have managed before and I will find a way to manage again this time". Similarly, "I can't finish in time, it is impossible" becomes "I don't know whether I will be able to finish in time, but I will do everything I can. It is not the first time I have tough deadlines to meet."
Step 4 - Take action
Once you have identified stressful thoughts that are not an objective representation of the circumstances, start reframing them. As the saying goes, what you resist persists. Instead of resisting or ignoring the stressor, focus on what you can influence: think about what you have learned from the situation, look for solutions, set goals and take action.
Reframing will transform negative stress into positive energy that you can use to more successfully deal with the situation. In other words, transforming something negative into something challenging will give you a boost, and taking action will empower you to find ways to resolve or mitigate the issue.
When you realise that you can choose how you think, it is a revelation, a super-power. Try it for yourself. You will be surprised what a positive impact it can have on your stress, anxiety and general well-being. It can truly change your life!
This article is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, heal or prevent any disease or medical condition. See full Disclaimer here. I encourage you to do your own research and to discuss with a qualified healthcare practitioner the options that could work the best for your specific circumstances.
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