Have you ever had the experience of having an over-the-top stress reaction – and the emotions and physical symptoms that go along with it – to what might normally have been, at the most, just annoying? It all starts with stressful thoughts.
Here’s why that happens: Your body takes its orders from your mind. And your body doesn’t know the difference between a big stressor or a small stressor. So if your mind sends out a stress alarm, your body reacts accordingly by pumping all those stress hormones. Red alert!!!
As a result, your wellness takes a hit. If you’re living with a chronic condition, you may be especially vulnerable to the effects of stress.
A few years ago, I had an office in the Wall Street area of New York City, arguably one of the stress capitals of the world. And on probably a daily basis, I witnessed the affect that allowing ourselves to overreact to life events can have on emotional wellness.
I remember standing in line in a deli one day at lunch time, surrounded by men and women in suits barking into cellphones as they waited for their food, which I suspect they would either scarf down on the way back to the office or eat in front of their computer monitors. After one guy simultaneously talked on his phone and ordered a chicken wrap, the employee behind the counter informed him that they had run out of salsa and he would need a couple of extra minutes to complete his order.
“What? Are you serious?” the guy blustered in frustration. “I’m supposed to stand here and wait because you aren’t prepared?” This was followed by a few more choice words and a display of how our bodies can react to stress.
If I had been a bit braver, I might have rested my hand on the poor stressed out man’s shoulder and said: “Dude, it’s a chicken wrap. You’re gonna be okay.”
Stressful Thoughts Can Push Up the Stress Dial
Your body reacts to your stressful thoughts, emotionally and physically. And again, your body doesn’t know the difference between big stress and little stress. The stress alarm sounds and your body reacts: Fight! Flight! Freeze! So if you allow your mind to constantly pump out red alerts, all that stress is going to take a toll.
My guess about the poor guy who blew up over the delayed chicken wrap pretty much always walks around with a high level of stress. You have to wonder what kind of toll this will take on him over time, as well as those around him.
What about you? Are you keeping the dial turned up so high that every stressor, big or small, feels like an impending catastrophe? If you are, how about taking a step forward in managing stressful thoughts before those your body goes on alert? Here’s how:
First, take a step back. Breathe. Ask yourself: Is this a catastrophe or am I magnifying a small inconvenience or annoyance and giving it the power to wreck my peace of mind?
Dial it down. Visualize yourself standing in front of a big dial. With whatever is stressing you out, on a scale of 1 to ten, dialed up to a ten. And then consider, where does this stressor fall? You might dial it back to a five, or a two. Or you might decide it doesn’t even merit your mental energy. You can choose to adjust your interpretation of the situation accordingly.
Treat the symptoms. Each of us has our own unique way of reacting to a stressful situation. Bursts of anger. Hands balling up into fists. Sweating. Hyperventilating. Stomach clutching. Where do you feel your stress? As you visualize yourself adjusting that stress dial downward, be conscious of how your body is reacting. Take calming breaths. Relax those tightening muscles. Stop glaring.
Regain your perspective. When you have stressful thoughts, use your rational mind to “talk yourself down from the ceiling.” Ask yourself: “Is this really worth making an issue out of or is it something I can shrug my shoulders over? Am I taking something personally when someone else is just having a bad day or distracted by their own problems? Is this really a major offense or is it a minor glitch in my day?” A sense of humor can help here, like smiling at how for a minute or two that delayed chicken wrap sure felt like a stock market crash.
And stay awake. Awake to your own emotional state – and whether you might be especially vulnerable to stressful thoughts so that you can be mentally prepared to manage them. And staying aware of what’s going on around you to discern where your mental energy needs to go and where it doesn’t. When you’re not awake, it’s like being trapped in a pinball machine, getting bounced here and there and back again. You can’t control your thoughts, but you don’t have to let them control you.
So, I repeat: Dude, it’s a chicken wrap. You’re gonna be okay. Change the way you think and change the way you feel.