Whenever I talk about stress and overwhelm, I usually mention two main groups of causes:.
Firstly, physical, practical causes, like not eating well, not getting enough sleep and so on.
Secondly, issues around people pleasing, perfectionism, setting healthy boundaries and so on, that can lead us to take on too much.
But there is a third cause of stress: how we choose to respond to and interpret threat.
Stress is what we call it when the body produces certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to help us get through a challenging situation. That isn’t a bad thing. The problem comes when we keep on producing these chemicals and never give ourselves a chance to recover, and when we feel that what we have to deal with is more than we can cope with.
Now, sometimes it actually IS more than we can or should be coping with, and the best thing to do is to stop, say no, step back.
But sometimes we can help ourselves to cope by reframing the situation, or changing the way we look at it:
Let’s say what’s stressing you out is having to give a presentation. Try and work out what exactly it is that’s causing the stress. Is it a lack of time, or knowledge, or, more likely, is your Inner Troll telling you that you’re going to humiliate yourself in front of however many people? Question if there is any evidence for your fears.
If there is, and you really do need more help or time and so on, then reframe it as a problem to be solved. Work out what you need to do to solve it, and start taking some concrete actions. Often this means asking for help, pulling out of something, or accepting that something won’t be as perfect as you’d ideally like.
Or it might mean that we stop focusing on the ‘huge’ task in front of us, and instead, zero in on what we have to do first,and approach the task in bite size steps.
Research suggests that having a feeling of some control over a situation dramatically reduces feelings of stress. So, work out what you can control about the situation, and focus hard on that.
If it’s Troll talk getting in the way, you could try reframing the anxiety or nervousness as a challenge. In fact the physical manifestation of anxiety is almost identical to that of excitement- it’s the story we tell ourselves about what we’re feeling and why that makes the difference.
Finally, ask yourself if what you’re worrying about will matter in five years’ time. Or even a few months’ time. Chances are it won’t. A bit of perspective can do wonders to calm down that stress response.
Of course stress is often triggered by things which actually are out of our control, but we do still get to choose the actions we take (or don’t take) and how we interpret what is happening to us.
So, the next time you feel overwhelmed and stressed:
1. Ask yourself if you are physically taking enough care of yourself.
2. Consider if you are worrying too much about what people may think, or not setting healthy boundaries.
3. If both those things are in hand, then could you step back and see the situation differently?