When we encounter most stressors we mentally process them quickly like a computer. Many times this processing seems automatic and unconscious. Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to process stressful events in a way that magnifies our stress. What could be neutral becomes worrisome and stressful. What typically would create some distress now creates a much more intense reaction. Significant stress can then create panic. The adage “we can make mountains out of molehills” summarizes how we do in fact increase our own stress.
Some specific beliefs or values that we have learned in our culture from our parents, teachers, peers, and religious authorities, act as magnifiers of stress to some degree in just about all of us. Fortunately, we can change how we look at, perceive, or interpret situations so that we do not overreact to stressful events. Rather than magnify our stress, we can learn to filter out some of its negative impact on us.
We can separate these cognitive/mental factors that magnify stress into two categories: mental habits and specific beliefs.
Four mental habits are very common in our culture. First, you might catastrophize or make things seem dramatically worse than they really are. If so, you often see situations deteriorating or leading to tragic conclusions. You would tend to exaggerate and blow things out of proportion. A second mental habit is where you tend to see things in absolute terms. Do you think in an all or none fashion? If so, you would see things in black and white and have a hard time seeing the gray in between. This would lead you to “over-generalize” in response to certain events and your language will reflect this. Words like “never,” “always,” “everyone,” “no one,” and “impossible” are frequently heard. A third common mental habit is when we have a strong tendency to focus on the negative and tend to ignore the positive. If this is true for you, you may operate as if you have tunnel vision and your attention is likely to focus on what is “wrong,” “bad,” “terrible,” etc. You can easily spot flaws in people, places, and things. Your negative attitude may set you up to be dissatisfied, and to get angry or depressed easily. A final mental habit is having excessive expectations of yourself and/or others. Thoughts such as “I must” or “you should” frequently will run through your mind and your vocabulary. If these expectations are not realistic, you are likely to be disappointed in yourself and others.
These processes are like any other habits in that they are hard to break unless we are highly motivated to change them. However, even when we want to change these mental habits, we still need a good approach to be successful. These methods will be presented in detail in a future blog.
In addition to learning what some of your mental habits are, you want to increase your awareness of whether you are magnifying your stressors by examining your specific beliefs and attitudes. We all are likely to have some strong beliefs that can cause us additional distress The iCope books provide an expanded list of irrational beliefs and the effects these have on your behavior and personality. Below are just a few common beliefs that are likely to magnify our stress. See if you identify with some of these troublesome beliefs:
- I must have love and approval of everyone who is important to me.
- I must be thoroughly competent at everything I do.
- The world should be fair.
These beliefs are described by most psychologists as being essentially irrational. This does not mean that the thoughts are “crazy,” but maintaining them will increase your stress. As such, they are major culprits in causing you more stress than you need to experience at any given time. It should be noted that these just happen to be some of the most common beliefs in our culture that are stress producing. Each irrational belief serves as a magnifier of stress, and it would be to your benefit to modify those beliefs. For some quick examples, more rational thoughts to counter any of the irrational beliefs above are listed below.
- Instead of: I must have love and approval…
More rational thoughts would be: I wish I could be loved and approved by ________, and it really hurts that I am not able to get that, but I can survive this. This is not a life or death situation.
- Instead of: I must be thoroughly competent at everything I do.
More rational thoughts would be: I try to do the best I can at whatever I do. If I am not perfect, or even fail, that is okay because this is how we learn. I am human and none of us are perfect.
- Instead of: The world should be fair.
More rational thoughts would be: I wish the world was fair, but I cannot expect that in life. Bad things do happen to good people. No one promised me fairness, but it still can be upsetting when this happens to me. My challenge is to get past the “unfairness” and not let this interfere with other aspects of my life.
As stated above, you can buffer yourself from some stress by modifying any irrational beliefs. Fortunately, this can be done by learning to challenge irrational beliefs and talking to yourself in a way that helps break any mental habits or beliefs that are increasing your stress. “Rational self-talk” methods can be a powerful psychological tool that will be extremely helpful in managing your stress in the future. These “cognitive restructuring” steps, which will diffuse much of the unwanted stress you encounter, will be presented in the next blog.
Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.