Switch off your stress by challenging your thoughts

The strategies for coping with worrying fantasies are simple to learn but hard to put into practice

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:00

Many of us go through life with wrong beliefs that are so widespread that hardly anyone stops to question them. For example, the stress-inducing belief that caring parents are bound to feel worried and anxious until they hear their teenagers come in at night causes unnecessary sleeplessness.

Think about this logically. Will any amount of anxiety bring a son or daughter home earlier or safely?

No, so there is little logic to lying in bed imagining a teenage son getting drunk or fearing a daughter might come home pregnant. It would be far more pleasurable and every bit as effective to think happy thoughts.

In one way it makes no sense to worry and feel stressed about something that might never happen. In another it is perfectly understandable. People have a real emotional response, not to reality but to what they believe is true. So a person who worries that something bad will happen experiences the same emotional stress as if the scenario that reflects their genuine fears is real.

Body’s reaction

Hans Seyle’s research into stress shows what happens in the body. The cerebral cortex sends an alarm signal to the hypothalamus. This stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to make changes in the body.

The heart rate and blood pressure go up. Chronic stress results if the message to turn off the flight-or-fight response does not occur.

Stress researcher Richard Lazarus found that stress begins with your appraisal of the situation. As soon as you perceive the situation is no longer dangerous, your brain stops sending danger warnings to your nervous system.

Three minutes after the messages stop, the chemicals burn out and you return to normal.

Most of us are unaware of how skilled we are at fashioning fantasy into reality. You don’t need professional help to reduce stress.

You need a willingness to challenge and change the fantasy – the stories you tell yourself – that generate worry and cause physical stress.

The first step in coping with worry is to recognise that you have genuine feelings in response to a story, a fantasy to which you react as if it is real.

Let me explain. If I close my eyes and fantasise that I’m walking along a sandy beach on a beautiful summer day, I will be able to feel the sensations of the sand under my feet and the warmth of the sun on my skin. I may even hear the sounds of children playing.

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