Note: This is part of a series of blog posts I've been doing about adopting a more positive mindset. You can find the others in the list of blog posts.
Have you felt any stress lately? I'm going to guess that you answered yes, because stress is part of all our lives. (But if you said no, let me know how you did it!) Whether it's about your relationships, health, finances, job, etc., there's always something.
That's why I was eager to read suggestions on reframing stress in Shawn Achor's book Big Potential. He calls it practicing Mental Aikido, and he offers a number of tips for starting this practice.
But first, let's take a moment to consider why this is important.
Negative impacts of viewing stress as enemy
It's easy to think of stress as the enemy. That’s how we usually see others responding to it, after all. Most depictions of people being stressed include them feeling miserable, getting headaches or being otherwise ill, and trying to cope in unproductive ways – including with mindless eating.
But seeing stress this way gives it power over you. It can feel like stress takes over your life.
As Achor puts it, we actually enable stress by viewing it as the enemy, and this increases the negative impact on us.
Don't go it alone – personal example
Making stress into the enemy also tends to isolate us. We feel like we have to deal with it alone.
But in Achor's words, "When we feel stress in isolation, it can be devastating." (p.204)
And I know from personal experience how right he is. Because the most stressful times in my life have been when I've felt alone.
As a teen, I thought I was the only one dealing with body image issues and struggling with weight. Or at least the only one my age. I hated my body and suffered enormously because of that and because I didn't have anyone to turn to.
When Mom died, again, I didn't know anyone else close to my age who'd lost their mother (or father). I couldn't even talk to my brother or other family members because they were all dealing with grief in their own ways, and it wasn't like mine. It made a catastrophic event that much worse.
And when I dealt with health issues coming after weight loss, I felt like an outsider. I'd never read or heard of anyone having a negative response after losing weight. Everything was supposed to be rosy and wonderful.
Except it wasn't.
Looking back, I can start to understand why my cortisol levels (that's the stress hormone) were so elevated a few years ago. I'd not only seen stress as the enemy, but I'd been trying to deal with it alone. And that contributed to my poor sleep, fatigue, and bone density issues. (As an aside, once I worked with someone to treat the cortisol levels, all that started to improve.)
Maybe you’ve experienced something similar, but even if not, I’m guessing you’ve had your own instances where stress has had a negative impact.
5 tips for reframing stress
But if you don’t view stress as the enemy, then how would you see it? Achor suggests thinking about it as a source of motivation, and he offers some suggestions for reframing your thoughts about it.
Recognize the meaning. As Achor points out, you don't stress about things you don't care about. If you're feeling stressed, ask yourself, "Why does this matter?” Connecting to the deeper levels of meaning can help you find different ways to think about the situation. (Side note – this is for general stress, while also recognizing that some people suffer from anxiety and may need to approach this differently.)
New direction for energy. Then you want to think about where you can put your energy. Getting really frustrated and aggravated about a situation takes a lot of mental energy, and some physical resources as well. If you can put that energy into the underlying situation you care about, you'll not only be less stressed but you'll also have made progress on something more meaningful. And as Achor notes, "Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Upside of Stress, argues, 'Chasing meaning is better for health than trying to avoid discomfort.'" (p. 203)
View challenges as enhancing. This is where you really need to avoid isolation. Because one of the best ways of handling stress is to try making things better for other people in the same situation as you. This helps you see a stressful time as a challenge to work through as a group, not a burden to bear on your own. It also deepens bonds with others, and that always helps with finding meaning.
Reframe failure. It's all too easy to think of failure as proof that you're not good enough. Or even that you'll never be good enough. That kind of thinking comes with a fixed mindset – and thankfully, you can change it. If you move to a growth mindset, you can see failure as a source of motivation. You can use it to give you energy, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.
Don't look for trouble. Life hands out enough challenges without you having to look for them. So keep an eye out for times when you imagine threats that don't exist. It can be tempting to jump to worst case scenarios. For instance, if you don’t hear from someone for a while, you wonder what you did. But most of the time, those situations aren’t about you, and jumping to the worst conclusion without any evidence is counterproductive.
Connecting to mindful eating
The connection to mindful eating is very clear. After all, most of the time when people eat for emotional reasons, it's either from stress or boredom. Anything that changes how you handle stress will therefore likely help with emotional eating.
But in addition to that, it could also be helpful to consider why your current relationship to food is a stress for you (assuming it is). Why do you care about this? What would it mean to you if that changed? That understanding alone is very useful, since it can give you a direction to go instead of simply feeling stressed.
Or if you're struggling with relationships in your life – family, romantic, friends, colleagues, etc. – think about who's in it with you. Maybe it's the person in the relationship, but it could also be others. For example, if you're struggling with a particular family member, maybe you can talk to another family member who's in the same boat and try to help them. Or someone else who has a similar family dynamic.
Any way you can use this approach will likely help on the eating side – and with the rest of your life.
What I've noticed
I've realized how much things changed for me when I started focusing on people in similar situations. Writing this blog post is part of that – I do it to help others, but it's good for me, too.
I've also spent a lot of time in the past couple of years with friends who've lost their moms, and it's made a huge difference for me. It started with me wanting to help them by offering a listening ear and supportive presence, but I've gained an enormous amount as well. It's made Mother's Day and the anniversaries around Mom so much easier to get through. That's really brought home for me how going it alone doesn't work so well.
And lately I've been thinking a lot about stress at work. Why do I get so upset about it? What's the meaning?
This is where it gets a little tenuous for me. Part of my stress about work is that healthcare in our country is tied to employment. The irony is that the stress of the job may make you sicker. So it’s not exactly about meaning, except in the sense that it matters to me to be covered in case of health issues.
But another part of the problem is that I don't feel like my job has a lot of meaning – and I often don't even have the resources to do a good job, which drives me nuts. Even if our software isn't changing the world, it would at least help to know that it works well for our customers and makes their lives easier.
Plus, it's important to me to be able to live on my terms, and work puts a lot of constraints around that. But I've been trying to acknowledge what flexibility I do have – and it's a lot – as well as realizing this won't be forever.
I also recognize that from a financial perspective, my job has enabled me to do some things that have more meaning for me. Focusing on all that helps with the stress.
So – yes, I'd say these approaches work.
How about you? Do you have any tips for reducing stress, or have you tried any of these techniques? If not, and you experiment with these, let me know how it goes!
And here's to all of us finding the meaning and reducing stress so we can lead happier lives.