Dealing With Stress and Anxiety: An Exercise in Thought Control

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anxiety thought control

What is stress? Stress is understood to be your cognitive, emotional, and behavioral response to events you perceive as being threatening to your well-being. At least that is how stress and anxiety are understood from the perspective of cognitive psychology, specifically the seminal theory of stress of Lazarus and Folkman (1984).

When you perceive an event to be threatening, anxiety triggers discomfort and distress, which is manifested in the way your body responds. A state of anxiety is associated with feelings of apprehension, doubt, and fear in relation to an event. Both stress and anxiety are based on your perception of reality.

Control Your Thoughts

The first thing you need to do when faced with stress and anxiety is to be aware of the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

For example, you have a major deadline coming up at work and you are seriously behind (the event). You consider yourself to be a responsible and diligent person and appraise this deadline as highly threatening to your wellbeing. As the due date approaches, you start to feel more and more threatened. You beat yourself up with thoughts such as: “I can’t succeed,” “I am so irresponsible,” “How could I have let myself get into this mess?” You feel tremendous disappointment in yourself and are discouraged, anxious, and depressed (your feelings). You find it increasingly difficult to concentrate at work and struggle to fall asleep at night (your physical response). You attempt to “cope” by avoiding your manager and colleagues and surfing the net (coping attempts). Two days before the deadline and you are ready to crack – you barely sleep, you overeat, and are irritable and snappy. You are dealing with the situation in a way that generates stress and anxiety!

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Not everyone faced with this event would have interpreted and responded to it in the same way. For instance you might have perceived this deadline as a challenge and may be spurred on with such thoughts such as “This is really challenging but I can manage,” “I am really capable,” “I can do this, with a little help.” This in turn may have generated feelings such as anticipation and optimism. You may have physically responded by making sure you get enough sleep and eat healthily, and you may have coped by working a few extra hours and delegating some responsibilities to other colleagues. You are dealing with the situation in a manner that generates well-being and productive coping.

Each situation – whether positive or negative – can be perceived differently depending on your perspective. One person may find themselves excited by the thought of their wedding while another might feel only fear and nerves. It is the interpretation of the event that really matters and determines the degree of stress and anxiety you experience.

So once you start to adjust your perception of a situation, thus influencing your thoughts, you can transform previously stressful and anxiety provoking experiences into manageable situations that you can effectively master! This is a profoundly liberating and empowering perspective as you are no longer a victim of your circumstances but rather you can actively shape your experience through gaining increased awareness and control of your perceptions and thoughts.

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Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise.
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