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


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.

The more details I put into the fantasy, the more genuine pleasure I gain because the brain cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. Your body reacts to every thought you have.

When you have a negative thought, your brain releases chemicals that make your body feel bad. Positive thoughts release chemicals that make you feel good. Visualise something pleasant, and the stress induced by negative thinking is switched off.

Coping strategies

The strategies for coping with worrying thoughts are simple to learn but hard to put into practice if you are used to living with stress.

Letting go of worry may be too much for someone who comes from a family that worries. A person who believes it is normal to worry may decide that it feels strange and uncomfortable not to have stress.

Challenge thoughts that generate worry by talking back to them. For example, there is a widespread belief that the more you love someone, the more you worry about them. Ask what evidence is there for this and you will find none.

Worry has nothing to do with love. Stop catastrophising about something that may never happen. When you feel physically stressed, stop, identify what you are thinking and make the decision to change your focus of attention.

Reponse or reaction

The logical strategy for coping in any situation is to decide whether to respond to or react against it. Most of us lack any awareness of the many choices we have about what we think and feel.

If the cultural norm is to worry when someone is in hospital, that is how we have learned to react.

Thousands of people are diagnosed with life-challenging illness every week. There is nothing a person can do about the diagnosis, but people do have choices about how to cope.

Isn’t it a tragedy when a person is so distraught about what might happen in the future that they now find life depressing?

Using the strategies to cope with worry involves altering habitual thinking. This sounds easy but is incredibly hard to put into practice. But once the decision is made to focus on what is positive, you have started to bring more balance and optimism to your life. You are managing your life better.

Carmel Wynne is a life and work skills coach. See carmelwynne.org

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