Stress is part and parcel of life and there are many stressful situations that we can neither avoid nor change. In these situations we have control over one thing and one thing alone and that is how we choose to respond to these kinds of situations. In my previous article, I emphasized the importance of developing an awareness of yourself as the underpinning basis for coping with stress. In two additional articles, I looked at ways of changing the stressful situation as a way of managing stress – avoiding the stressful situation all together or altering the stressful situation. This article follows on from this series of articles focuses on how you can manage your reaction to stress by focusing on your expectations and attitude, as opposed to avoiding or altering the stressful situation. If you are unable to change the stressful situation, then how about changing yourself?
This article explores how you can adapt to unpleasant circumstances by managing your expectations and attitude. The way we perceive a stressful situation is core to the impact it has on us. This is a key realization in managing stress especially in situations where we have minimal or no control over the circumstances. Situations like losing a job or dealing with a challenging child cannot be avoided but choosing the lens through which we view these events can transform a negative experience into one that becomes an enormous opportunity for growth.
Let’s explore some specific strategies that use our thoughts as the mechanism for dealing with a stressful situation:
Choose a positive reframe. By viewing challenging circumstances from a more optimistic perspective you can greatly reduce your experience of stress. For instance as opposed to getting furious about being stuck in traffic jam, adopt a more positive take on the situation. See the time you have stuck in the car as a chance to listen to your favorite music or as an opportunity to pause and reflect.
Focus on the forest not the trees. By taking a broader perspective on any stressful situation you can go a long way toward reducing your stress. Often when we are going through a stressful situation it becomes all consuming. It’s incredibly helpful to step back and put the issue into perspective. By asking yourself questions such as “will this really matter in the long run?”, “does this issue really effect my life at a fundamental level?”, “will I even remember this event in a few months’ time?” you can help yourself put the issue into perspective. Most of the events we stress out over are not really worth getting upset about when you ask yourself these kinds of questions. In fact if you answer these questions in the negative it gives you good reason to stop stressing and focus your time and energy elsewhere.
Notice the positive. When you feel overwhelmed by stress, pause and notice other aspects of your life. Stressful events very rarely encompass our entire lives. Noticing where things are going well in your life, by appreciating the positive, the abundance of good things in your life is another way of maintaining a healthy outlook in the face of stressful events. Simple tasks like listing the things you are grateful for on any given day can help keep potentially stressful events in perspective.
Set realistic expectations. Stressful situations can be greatly defused by setting the bar at a realistic or even slightly low level. For instance if you are planning a party and you enter into the situation with realistic expectations about how much effort, time and money you are able to invest into the event you already are ensuring a much more manageable experience. Overly high expectations and the perfectionism that often accompanies such expectations are a major source of avoidable stress. Learn to be comfortable with “good enough” and set realistic standards for yourself and others. This will allow you to enter into situations with reasonable expectations and thereby not set yourself up for failure and unnecessary stress.
Don’t have an opinion. Sometimes by simply not entering into a potentially complex situation by “keeping your opinions to yourself” you can minimize the impact of a stressful situation. So for instance if your husband’s family is deciding where to spend Christmas lunch keep out of the discussion, thereby not entering into what could be a potentially challenging and stressful experience.
These approaches to changing yourself focus on how you can choose to manage and channel your thoughts. Through managing and controlling your thoughts you can totally transform your experience of stress. By modifying your reactions you can regain your sense of control over challenging situations and transform these experiences into opportunities for growth.
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. Take a look at her LinkedIn profile