In our often stressful lives, one single thought can make the difference. These were the findings obtained by brain researchers in recent studies, which showed there are 13 common mind traps or negative thought processes that can constantly trigger stress reactions, even when the actual threat level is low.
We might live in a stress-filled world, but experts say recognising and changing some common negative thought patterns can save us a whole lot of exhaustion and unnecessary anxiety.
"Stress is like a guitar string. If it's strung too loosely, it can only play flat, lower sounds, and if it's strung too tightly, it produces excessively high, sharp tones, or indeed even snaps," says stress researcher Jonathan S Abramowitz of the University of North Carolina.
"A guitar string must have the right tension in order to sound good. And when it comes to stress, we too need to find the right tensioning to ensure this stress plays out within a healthy range."
It might sound easy, but the reality isn't so simple. After all, stress is defined as the sum of all our physical and mental reactions to our environment and the daily demands placed upon us. This is the reason stress reactions are often triggered too intensively and too permanently, and sustained tension can make people ill. And yet irksome situations only make up a small part of the triggers behind stress reactions, with 90 per cent of our stress tracing back to how we think about a challenge beforehand.
Brain researchers have found certain mind traps we constantly fall into and which immediately trigger stress.
"If we recognise these thoughts and are able to stop feelings of lack from arising, stop thinking in black and white, and stop always wanting to have control over everything, we can use our ability to give preference to one thought over another," says cellular biologist Dr Bruce Lipton.
"Changing our thoughts can impact on how our brain communicates with the rest of the body. That is the safest way of ensuring more calmness, and the greatest weapon against negative stress."
Negative thought process 1: I have to do it perfectly
Perfectionism means spending at least 50 per cent of your energy on the last (usually dispensable) 10 per cent of a task. This is pure stress. We get out of this stress by reviewing the demands we place on ourselves and our own performance. Anyone who frequently thinks 'I must' or 'I mustn't' will become stressed more easily than people who accept their limitations.
Stress reducing mantra: I don't always have to achieve 100 per cent; 80 per cent will suffice.
Negative thought process 2: I won’t be able to do it by the deadline
I don't have enough time. I'm not supported, included, appreciated enough. Psychologists have noted how the thought of not having enough of something leads to negative stress, which in turn intensifies our feelings of lack. We keep repeating the problem to ourselves, and it becomes larger in our memory than it was in reality.
Stress reducing mantra: I can do it.
Negative thought process 3: Nothing can be done anyway
A thought is like a behavioural pattern, says stress researcher Bruce McEwen. "So our brain doesn't distinguish whether a thought is good or bad for us; whether we fear or yearn for something. It uncritically bases its decisions on what's going on in our head." If, say, we believe we have no control over events, then we are indeed powerless, a feeling that triggers emotional stress.
Stress reducing mantra: We'll find a solution sooner or later.
Negative thought process 4: Why do things always turn against me?
If we generalise states of stress, we get stuck in a negative thought pattern. "We suddenly see everything as being bleak and start to believe the stress, which in reality only affects one area of our life, will sooner or later end up consuming our entire life," says psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Our emotions are skewed so "we believe each of our thoughts to be true, no matter how absurd."
Stress reducing mantra: Today wasn't that great but tomorrow is a new day.
Negative thought process 5: My life is too stressful
Our perception focuses only on that which fits with our assumptions. "What we see is a mini excerpt, and we call it reality. We should actually be calling it our own reality," says psychologist Ilona Bürgel. Once we've zeroed in on the fact our work is stressful and annoying, it will be stressful and annoying because we only notice these aspects. We only notice the stress, be it mental or physical, because our thoughts do not permit any other truth.
Stress-reducing mantra: There's a lot to do, but I've got it all under control.
Negative thought process 6: It’s exactly as I say
This mindset is a hallmark of tunnel vision, where we only take on board information which fits with our beliefs. This leads us to repeat old patterns and make poor decisions which put us under stress. "The very fact we were so sure of ourselves results in our brain setting off a loud alarm in the event of an error, even when a quiet warning tone would have sufficed," says neurobiologist Gerald Huether.
Stress-reducing mantra: There is a lot I can't control.
Negative thought process 7: I’ve always done it this way
Our brain likes to be comfortable. If we don't urge it on, it often sticks with solutions it has found before. While routine can sometimes be effective, it often fails to help us progress. And if our habitual thoughts get out of kilter, we come under pressure. It is precisely in stressful situations that we need to mentally run through alternatives to calmly find solutions to the problem.
Stress-reducing mantra: I'm open to everything.
Negative thought process 8: I’m a winner or a loser
The world is beautiful – the world is horrible. If we think in black and white, we think in stereotypes. We don't see any greys; no relationships, no alternatives. There is only an 'either-or', not a 'both-and'. That's why every shade of grey creates stress – because we don't believe in flipping our views, and are unable to focus on what works in stressful situations.
Stress-reducing mantra: I don't tie myself down.
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