Thursday 14 August 2014

There's always something you can do about stress (3): Change the meaning

Overall, I'm not a great believer in relaxation techniques as a 'real-life' approach to stress management. Life gets difficult, pressurized, especially at work, and bad stuff happens. It's not as if you can say: "Stop there a moment while I do some diaphragmatic breathing".

That's why I'm a great believer in prevention and if-then planning, two stress management strategies I discussed in previous posts that can really work well.

A third approach I like and one I frequently use myself is more 'cognitive' in nature and involves re-interpreting or changing the meaning you attach to what happens. This approach is particularly effective if you tend to be pessimistic in outlook.

Let's look at what could on the face of it appear to a trivial example of bad stuff happening.

You send someone an email and they don't respond. In fact after three weeks, they still haven't responded.

Yes, this might seem 'trivial' but your interpretation of this event, the meaning you attach it, has the potential of ruining your day, week or even year...

"He never responds...It's always the same with him...He's totally incompetent...Why do I bother sending emails, the whole thing is pointless...Email is just a waste of time anyway...It's me, he can't stand me, he never could...He's doing this deliberately to wind me up... Maybe I came across as rude, I wish I'd never sent the thing... He'll never talk to me now, let alone do business with me...This organization stinks...This job is hopeless, it always was...I was stupid to think I could make it here...I'm just useless...Who'd want to hire me..."

There are some characteristically negative explanatory styles here such as: permanence (always, never), pervasiveness (generalizing, all, everything), personalizng (blaming, it's me, my fault), and 'catastrophizing' (it's a complete disaster).

You think these things and you end up feeling bad, maybe very bad. You feel stressed, upset, worried, disappointed. Negative emotions like anger, frustration, bitterness well up. You might start blaming yourself and feel depressed.

But why do you end up feeling so awful? You can't simply blame the bad stuff. (As they say, 'shit happens'.) Rather, it might be how you interpreted the bad stuff that led to you feeling so bad.

So what can you do? CBT argues that what you have to do is challenge the negative interpretations and meanings you come up with when bad stuff happens. There are four basic strategies.

Firstly, you can challenge yourself on the evidence. It is really true they never respond? A quick look back through emails should suffice. 'Evidence' is a good word to have at the back of your mind for quick challenges. It forces you to be more objective, to see things as they really are rather than jump to negative conclusions or make assumptions.

Secondly, you can see if there are alternative explanations. Maybe our non-responder's been ill or on holiday, or maybe he's moved department. Or perhaps the email's got delayed by some tech glitch. Maybe one of those alternative explanations might also be more likely?

Thirdly, you can look fully at the implications of your negative interpretation. So, he hasn't responded and maybe he never will. Maybe there is some truth in your negative assumptions. Assuming there is, what then? What should you do now..? This strategy is really about dragging what's lurking in the shadows out into the open and looking it square in the face. If you do that, things can become clearer, less scary. Also, if  you do this you tend to automatically go into a more constructive, if-then planning mode... OK so the culture here really does stink and the job is hopeless with no prospects - what should you do now...? "I'll create a new CV and update my LinkedIn profile...I'll make some decisions and start giving myself some options!" When you do face up to your fears in this way and start planning, you feel less stuck, more empowered. You start to feel more in control again. A lot better.

The fourth and final strategy is to ask yourself whether the way you're currently interpreting things is ultimately useful to you or not. If not it might literally be time for a re-think.

These four cognitive strategies (evidence, alternatives implications, usefulness) work and work well. I grew up surrounded by pessimism and it has definitely rubbed off on me to an extent. I therefore have to challenge my own negative thinking regularly. The kind of situations where I find this approach particularly helpful are ones where things can go wrong and where you have little control, such as business travel and on the golf course!

There are a couple of qualifications I definitely need to cover though.

Firstly, some bad stuff is not in any way trivial, like losing a child or your partner becoming seriously ill. Such life events can be highly stressful, traumatic even. They're very difficult for anyone to cope with and can take a lot of time to adjust to. I don't want to give the impression that 'challenging negative interpretations' is the best approach to dealing with really bad stuff. There isn't one way. Time helps. So does support, including professional support if needed.

From experience with really bad stuff, I'd say the biggest risk is becoming isolated. So talk to people (don't worry alone). See friends. Do stuff, especially outside in natural environments. Being active mentally and physically definitely helps. Being alone with your thoughts for too long often doesn't.

Secondly, I don't want to give the impression that pessimism is always bad. In some circumstances, seeing the negative scenario and then worrying about it is highly appropriate and adaptive. It might lead to you taking prompt remedial action that saves a lot of stress later on. A good example is money worries, where a negative interpretation could motivate you to act decisively 'now' so that the worst case scenario can never occur. It doesn't mean you shouldn't challenge negative thinking, but sometimes a negative interpretation is entirely valid in the circumstances.

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