Life can be stressful, we all know that. But is stress actually the enemy? Or is how we respond to it the real problem?
“Stressful events” like giving a big presentation or asking our boss for a promotion aren’t ones that we want to eliminate from our lives. No, that’s not the goal. The goal is to learn how to manage those potentially stress-inducing events.
How can you do that, though? By shifting your response to stress, you can learn how to peacefully coexist with events that in the past might have stressed you out, while being more productive and more in control.
Wellness experts Jan Bruce, Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., and Adam Perlman, M.D., M.P.H., authors of meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, explore how to do just that.
Their research shows that your thoughts become habits that can actually exacerbate your stress. Once you learn to understand and address your thinking styles, you can gain control over your stress, rather than letting that stress take control of you.
Here is a three-step process—trap it, map it, zap it (or TMZ, for short)—that will help you shift your response and change your perspective:
1. Trap it.
Identify what you are feeling. Most of us, if we stop and identify the physical sensation we are experiencing—flushed face, rapid heartbeat, sour stomach—can identify the emotion as soon as we feel it coming on—anger, anxiety, shame, respectively.
Often, we are better at identifying our feelings than we are our thoughts. However, our thoughts determine our emotional reaction, which we then experience as stress. We have to look further downstream at how we are feeling in order to get control of the upstream thought behind it. So identify the emotion and trap it.
2. Map it.
Once you’ve trapped the emotion, identify the thought behind it. This is often less difficult than you think.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious, you likely have a thought that something bad is going to happen.
If you’re angry, you likely have a thought that my rights have been violated in some way.
If you’re feeling embarrassed, you may be thinking I’ve lost standing in someone’s eyes.
Try to be as precise about that thought as possible.
3. Zap it.
The next step is to challenge that thought.
What is the bad thing that is going to happen?
Have my rights truly been violated?
Other people are more concerned about their own image than they are about mine.
Ask yourself if this feeling is really warranted. Is something really there? Am I truly likely to blow that big presentation, or Did my son truly forget to take out the trash in order to be disrespectful? You’ll often find that the thought has no validity and it disappears, and the negative emotion disappears with it. You’re prepared for the presentation and they’ve always gone well in the past. Your son has been studying for exams and just needs to be reminded.
These methods have been used in Fortune 500 businesses to help their employees cope with stress and optimize their work performance. Once we learn to shift our response to stress, we’ll begin to feel cooler and calmer—and ultimately, happier.