“We all lead stressful lives. Right? The truth is, some people manage it better than others. The key is having tools at your disposal to make that happen. Let me introduce you to Dr. Melanie Greenberg. I received an advance manuscript of her book, The Stress-Proof Brain, and I enthusiastically endorse it. In fact, I believe this is one of those rare books that everyone should have on their shelf. The following piece is adapted from her book.
“It is important to mention that I do not accept, nor did I receive, any benefit for my endorsement. My sole purpose for publishing this piece is to share a valuable resource with you.” –– Frank Sonnenberg
How Stress Creates Thinking Traps (And How to Get Out of Them)
By Melanie Greenberg, PhD
Stress is what you feel when an important goal, value, or resource is threatened. When you get stressed, your brain initiates a “fight, flight, freeze” response. Your brain becomes preoccupied with monitoring the threat and protecting yourself by fighting, freezing, or fleeing. This response works great for immediate physical threats like a predator about to attack you. But it doesn’t work so well for chronic stresses like threats to your livelihood, performing under pressure, or dealing with difficult people. Your brain’s stress response narrows your mental focus and makes you less cognitively flexible.
Following are some common thinking traps that you may get caught in when you’re stressed and some things you can do to reboot your brain.
Black-and-white thinking. Are you seeing things in black and white and forgetting about the gray? This kind of thinking tells you that either things are perfect or they’re terrible; you’re either a success or a failure—there’s nothing in-between.
Emotional reasoning. Do you assume you’re a loser just because you feel like one? When you experience failure or rejection, you’re more likely to see yourself in a negative light even without any evidence of wrongdoing.
Tunnel vision. Do your feelings about the stressor dominate your life—to the point that they’re all you can focus on? Do you forget about positive aspects of your life or past achievements that are sources of pride or happiness?
Wishful thinking. Are you organizing your life around what you hope will happen, rather than what is most likely to happen? Do you have a backup plan?
Blaming yourself or blaming others. Rather than focusing on the current situation and what you can do about it, do you blame yourself for past decisions that didn’t work out? Or do you blame others without taking responsibility for your contribution? Blame is an unhelpful approach because it focuses on the past and can lower your self-esteem or ruin relationships.
Guilt and regret. If you’ve acted against your values, guilt can help you make amends. But then you need to work on forgiving yourself. If you’re regretting a past decision, are you taking the circumstances into account? Hindsight is 20/20. You likely have knowledge now that you didn’t have then.
Overthinking and second-guessing yourself. Every time you need to make a decision or take action to address a stressor, do you begin to doubt yourself? Do you start thinking of all the negatives or things that could go wrong? Remind yourself that you don’t need to wait for the perfect answer before you act.
Getting caught in a thinking trap increases your stress, lowers your self-esteem, and can create anxiety and depression. Not only are you dealing with a difficult event, but now your own interpretation of why it happened makes you feel bad about yourself. Here are some things you can do instead:
Broaden your view. Try to step back and take a broader view of the situation. How important is this stressor, really? Could you survive if things didn’t work out the way you wanted? Try to put the stressor in perspective, rather than letting it dominate your attention and energy.
Focus on the positive. Is there anything to be gained from the situation? Might it be an opportunity for personal growth or for learning resilience and new coping skills? Focus on the excitement and passion you feel for your goals.
Remind yourself of your strengths. What personal qualities or values do you have that you can apply to this situation? Have you dealt successfully with life’s difficulties in the past? Think about the situation and your abilities in ways that make you feel more confident about getting through it.
Practice gratitude. Focus mindfully on the things in your life that are still good, despite the stressor. Allow yourself to feel grateful for your family, friends, mentors, physical health, skills, or opportunities you’ve received. Let the stressor be there, but don’t let it take up all your mental space.
This post is adapted from The Stress-Proof Brain by Melanie Greenberg © 2017 Melanie Greenberg. All rights reserved.
For more information about how to stay cognitively flexible and optimistic in the face of stress, check out my new book The Stress-Proof Brain (New Harbinger, 2017), now available on Amazon.
Melanie Greenberg is a practicing psychologist in Marin County, California, and an expert on managing stress in life, work, and relationships using proven strategies from neuroscience, mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral approaches, and positive psychology. She is the author of The Mindful Self-Express blog for Psychology Today (8 million+ page views). Her new book, The Stress-Proof Brain, was released last month by New Harbinger. It received a starred positive review from Library Journal and is an Amazon bestseller in Neuropsychology and Stress Management.
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