Pressures at home or work weighing you down? In a recent post, I wrote about 10 thinking traps that can cause you unnecessary stress and anxiety. This is a follow up post offering 3 techniques that will reduce your stress and anxiety and break out of those thinking traps.
Understanding the foundations of stress and anxiety and taking action against their presence are two different things. In general it’s pretty easy to tell when you are stressed or anxious. Yet what actually causes the most discomfort is not the stress or anxiety itself, but the thought that you are helpless against these daunting impediments.
When you are stressed and anxious, it may seem that there’s no way out, like the universe is conspiring against you. It can feel like you are stuck in a box, with no exit in sight.
Thinking traps (a.k.a. cognitive distortions) make up the boundaries of that imaginary box. When you are inside, your ability to see things clearly and make rational decisions becomes limited.
Breaking out of the box can be an intimidating task. But if you are equipped with the adequate knowledge and tools, it can certainly be done. Here are 3 techniques that will help you break out:
Technique #1: Stop, step back, breathe and observe.
This is a technique to help you identify the moment you get stuck in the figurative box. Remember that stress and anxiety is a natural fight or flight response. Your body is hardwired to narrow your focus and find the fastest way to end these stressful situations. The next time you notice yourself stressed or anxious, or the victim of a a panic attack, or simply behaving in a way that you don’t like, stop what you are doing, step back and breathe. Take 10 long, deep breaths and try to observe the emotions running through you.
Personally, I try to have the following sort of inner dialogue in my head:
“Am I afraid?”
“Am I stressed?”
The point is simply to identify and register the emotions that you are experiencing. Avoid any attempts to justify, deny or elaborate on these emotions. Just take the time to observe your emotional landscape. The objective of this technique is to clearly become aware of your mind being stuck in the metaphorical box. This method helps you to prepare to make a healthy change: getting out of the box.
Technique #2: Shift your mindset: a.k.a. “Cognitive Restructuring”
Cognitive restructuring is the tool you need get out of the box. Fancy lingo aside, this technique’s purpose is to help you re-evaluate the boundaries of that box. Are these limitations real? Or are they simply self imposed?
A pen and a piece of paper will be extremely helpful, at least until you become more familiar with using this technique (for the more technically inclined, digital notepads will do just fine!).
Write down as many thoughts relating to the emotions and issues you identified and registered with Technique #1. Some examples include: “I'm not going to be able to finish this by x date...”, “My colleagues are going to think I am dumb if I ask for help”, “Nothing has been going well for me this year.” These are the types of thoughts that can constitute the boundaries of the box you find yourself trapped in.
Now for each of these thoughts, consider their validity. Write down the facts supporting them, the facts against them, and the assumptions you made along the way. Then re-evaluate each respective thought. Is it really true? Or is it a thinking trap? It's possible you've just been deluding yourself into a state of paralysis. Building things up in your head to be worse than they are.
Along these lines, after going through this exercise, you will certainly notice that some boundaries are actually non-existent, and others are in fact much less significant than you imagined.
Technique #3: Journaling
Keeping a daily journal is a long term play. Its benefits are primarily gained after steadfast dedication to the process. This sort of journaling is very different from the routine that your school teachers likely engaged you in when you were a child. Its purpose is to help you improve your ability to identify your behavior, emotions and thoughts. Eventually it may even help you avoid entering the box entirely.
At the end of each day, write down the strong emotions you experienced during the day. Make sure to also include any abnormal behavior that you exhibited (we all have some). Remember to include both positive and negative experiences. If this feels overwhelming, just reflect on your day and jot down whatever emotions or behaviors stand out to you.
Then write down what you think triggered those emotions and behaviors. Go through the same process used in Technique #2 and take note of what triggers you. Over the following few days, try to keep a look out for those triggers.
After a significant period of time keeping a daily journal, say every couple of weeks, go through your entries and look for commonalities. Keep your eyes peeled for distinct patterns of thinking. Are you always biased against your ability to do something? Are you always afraid of trusting others to perform a task?
After about a month of journaling, you will be able to get a clearer understanding of your thought processes and tendencies. With this knowledge, you will be much better prepared against the dreaded “box”!
Reducing stress by yourself: difficult but doable
I’m not going to sugar coat anything. Learning to identify and control your thoughts and behaviors at such a level is tough. I have personally tried and failed multiple times. There will be good days when you can follow through with the techniques. Meanwhile, other days you might fall out mid way and go back to your body’s fight or flight protocol. Understand that this is normal. What does a baby do when they fall? Get back up and try again!
The effects of stress can be debilitating. Don't be ashamed if you feel this way! If things seem too difficult to pull off by yourself, it might be a good idea to ask for some assistance. Friends and family might not be too helpful with teaching you these techniques, but professional therapists can definitely guide you. This is what therapy is about. It’s all about learning to understand your thought processes and tendencies, and equipping yourself with techniques to improve yourself, and care for yourself.
Most therapists are very open about the techniques they use to help patients grow. We recently interviewed one of our therapists, Richard Logan, about his approach to therapy. Through RingMD you can find a diverse selection of prominent therapists, each of them able to teach you a lot more than 3 techniques!
If you're thinking "I need a therapist near me" but dont know where to start, try the RingMD therapist directory with a click of the button below. We will help you find the right therapist for YOU!
Above all else, I hope that this article is useful to you. Remember, the next time you feel stressed about work or any other issues, ask yourself: “Am I in a box?” You now know how to find your way out!