4 Ways to Beat Stress, Lose Your Guilt, and Be Happier
Research-based strength training for your emotions.
Posted Jul 30, 2013
Frustrated because you can’t get what you want? Has someone turned you down for a date, a work request, or just a favor? It can be annoying to be blocked from one of your goals. Fortunately, by applying some evidence-based tools of emotional strength training, you can turn down your stress meter and make the best of bad situations.
The cornerstone of emotional strength training is cognitive therapy, in which individuals seeking to overcome depression, anxiety, or problems in relationships build mental toughness by recognizing their triggers and then turning off the switch that might normally lead to a meltdown. One doesn't need to have a diagnosable condition, however, in order to apply some of these basic principles to improve one's ability to tolerate life’s setbacks and annoyances.
In cognitive therapy, individuals learn to read and change the dysfunctional inner patterns that lead to sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, and self-hatreds. They detect their automatic thoughts, the instantaneous—almost subconscious—assumptions that rattle around in their heads with no apparent rhyme or reason. When negative, these automatic thoughts take the form of simple phrases like, “nobody likes me,” or “I’m just so stupid.” Automatic thoughts sit there as primes that make you especially sensitive to situations in which others seem to slight you or in which you slip up in some insignificant way, such as forgetting what you were supposed to pick up at the grocery store after you get there.
Underneath the automatic thoughts are the time bombs of dysfunctional beliefs—the actual theories you have about your flaws and foibles. These beliefs might be that you are unlikeable or unlovable, that you’re incapable of doing anything without making a mistake, or that things in your life always have to go perfectly.
Cognitive theory proposes that these automatic thoughts and dysfunctional beliefs wreak havoc on our emotional life. If we didn't have these negatively-tainted views of ourselves and our experiences, we'd feel a lot better. By changing these thoughts, then, so the theory goes, we can change our emotions.
In therapy, people work with their therapists so that a little bell goes off in their head when such automatic thoughts kick in (“What an idiot I am"). They use those automatic thoughts to drill down to the dysfunctional beliefs that give rise to them (“I must not make mistakes”). Often these thoughts are prompted by a given situation (you accidentally step on someone’s toe). Then you can get to work on changing the belief (everyone is clumsy at times) and the automatic thought will go away or change to something more adaptive (such as, “I was clumsy just now. I wish I hadn’t been, but it doesn’t mean that I’m clumsy all the time, or stupid").
Even automatic thoughts and dysfunctional beliefs that don’t underlie depression or other conditions can still interfere with your emotional health. This is where the strength training comes into play. By becoming a clear thinker about situations that normally cause you stress, you can improve your everyday mood and self-esteem—and you can turn off your negative emotions no matter which buttons are pushed.
Here are 4 steps that will give you the tools you need to build your resilience:
1. Turn off your binocular vision.
Binoculars help us see the world in clearer detail, but they also make small things seem large. With emotional binocular vision, you look at situations in a way that makes them seem bigger and more threatening than they really are. Getting delayed in traffic by five minutes or running into bad weather that means you get drenched while running to catch a bus can be aggravating. In binocular vision, you see these ordinary daily problems as huge and insurmountable: You’re going to be late on a day you had a lot to get done or your freshly-done hair is ruined. Horrible, right? Turning off binocular vision means that you use your internal listening skills. You’ll hear a thought like, “If I’m late, people will think I’m a slacker,” a thought tied to the belief that you are a slacker. Once you can convince yourself that you are a hard worker, and that others realize you’re a hard worker, the delay will be an inconvenience but not a condemnation of your character. The situation will shrink before your eyes from the worst thing that could happen, and its magnitude will not overwhelm your mood.
2. Recolor your view of the world.
You know the expression, “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses,” the frame of mind that describes an eternal optimist. There are many health and wellbeing advantages to being an optimist. However, optimists aren’t always perfectly adapted to the stresses of the world, either. You may not have the psychological make-up to become an optimist, or at least not do become one overnight, but you can brighten your view of life events so that you’re not always viewing situations in the most negative possible way.
In coping with stress, people can either try to change the situation or their view of it. With situations that can be changed, your coping will be more effective if you actually do something to make the problem go away (“problem-focused coping”). With situations that are immutable, you’re better off changing something within yourself (“emotion-focused coping”).
Let’s say that you’re getting dinner ready for important guests (or one important one). You’re preparing the main dish and realize that you forgot to buy a key ingredient. Frantically, you look around the kitchen but realize that you have nothing at all to substitute for it. You could theoretically run to the store but if you’re running short of time, that’s not an option. How terrible! Your guests will think you’re a terrible host and they’ll never want to see you again! The automatic thoughts just won’t stop and the little problem now becomes the worst possible thing that could happen (that's binocular vision again).
You can’t actually change the situation so you’re next option is to change the way you view it. Start with some problem-focused coping: Calm yourself down and start to look at what you can realistically do. Perhaps you should go online and see if there are alternative recipes or substitutions you hadn’t considered. And, guess what, there’s another recipe almost like the first one. You plunge ahead with the alternative dish and everyone loves it. It may even be better than what you originally planned.
By taking the opposite, optimistic, takeaway message from such incidents, you can come to appreciate that situations need not conform to your original plans in order to be successful. The change of mindset benefits you.
3. Eliminate black-or-white thinking.
One of the primary cognitive errors that cause people excessive misery or anxiety is seeing the world in distinct terms: A situation is all bad, or all good. Most situations in life involve gradations in between these extremes. A great event may still have a few unfortunate implications, but building your emotional skills requires that you allow those situations to occur.
Consider an event that’s been months in the planning, like a family reunion, vacation, or business meeting. All is going well but then, out of nowhere, two people get into an argument and the mood is soured. After a while, though, the combatants retreat, and all is back to normal. Now, you could think, “This whole event was a disaster! I wanted it to be perfect, and now it’s all for nothing!” Or, you could adopt a shade-of-gray approach and say that the event still went 90% well. Recognizing that the automatic thought, “I have to be perfect,” is caused by the dysfunctional belief that if you’re not perfect, you’re no good, will help you accept life’s imperfections without being demolished by the occasional snafu.
The all-or-nothing approach can also create problems when you engage in the related cognitive problem of fortune-telling on insufficient evidence. In this situation, you start to imagine a future event that hasn’t yet happened and assume that it will turn out badly: “I’d like to go to the party, but I’m sure no one will talk to me. I might as well stay home.” You have no real reason for anticipating this unfortunate outcome. It may stem from your automatic thought, “No one likes me,” which itself stems from the dysfunctional belief, “If everyone doesn’t like me, I’m no good as a person.” With no other data generated by your mind, you draw an inaccurate inference and make yourself miserable in the process.
Instead of making such mood-altering predictions, enter into a feared situation with an open mind instead. If you allow yourself to monitor situations objectively—without assuming that you’re flawed, deficient, etc.—you may be pleasantly surprised by outcomes that validate your self-worth. Combine this with the notion that things aren’t always 100% good or bad, and you’ll be on your way to building reserves that will protect you from unnecessary disappointment.
4. Avoid the blame game.
We all play the blame game now and then, accusing others when it was our own behavior that caused a negative outcome. In emotional strength training, you take responsibility for your actions. If something goes wrong that is your fault (not one that you just imagine to be your fault), you accept the fact without cringing. You own your behavior rather than foist the problem’s cause onto someone else. As a result, people will like you more, not less. They will appreciate your honesty, maturity, and openness to negative information about yourself.
Of course, for the anti-blame game to work, you need to avoid blaming yourself for something you didn’t do. Taking too much responsibility for events going wrong can lead you to endless bouts of self-doubt, making you more likely to predict unfortunate outcomes, see the world through dark-colored glasses, and take an all-or-nothing approach to life’s gray-colored events.
Even thinking in terms of “blame” can create problems: Why must someone be blamed? Why not attribute negative outcomes to the causes that often are the real source of the problem? Perhaps you offered to take your friends out for a weekend afternoon foray to the par or the mall. A tree branch from a truck falls in front of your car, and though you try to avoid it, you get a flat tire. Now you all have to wait for a repair person to rescue you. Where’s the blame to assign? Is it your fault because it was you who invited them, decided to drive, and couldn’t avoid the branch without swerving into another car? No, it was nothing you caused.
Research on cognitive therapy shows that people who become more competent in the skills they develop in cognitive therapy are better able to resist succumbing to experimental manipulations of negative moods (Strunk et al., 2013). The results can produce a lifetime of lighter moods.
Strunk, D. R., Adler, A. D., & Hollars, S. N. (2013). Cognitive therapy skills predict cognitive reactivity to sad mood following cognitive therapy for depression. Cognitive Therapy And Research, doi:10.1007/s10608-013-9570-z
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013