We can’t control every stressful trigger, but we can control our reactions to them. Dr. Mike Evans, associate professor of family medicine and public health at the University of Toronto and a regular guest expert on Canadian radio and TV shows, believes the key to stress management is to change the way we think. Here, he shares his thoughts on stress, and techniques to dial it down.
Q: What is stress?
A: It’s different for each person, but it’s usually a sense of being overburdened. Stress can involve feelings of anxiety or sadness, but for most people it’s feeling that they can’t keep up, like they’re sinking. So often we think that stress is caused by external factors, but in fact we are the manufacturers of our own stress levels–we create it in our minds.
Q: Are there people who are stress-resistant?
A: Our culture tells us that if only we had the right car or the perfect body or a better job, we would have fewer problems and less stress. But that is counter to what I believe: 10 percent of how you feel is based on what happens to you, and 90 percent is how you react to that 10 percent. People who are “stress-resistant” look at the ups and downs of life and see them for what they are. They are able to reframe their thoughts naturally by looking at the bigger picture when things go wrong, and balancing optimism with realism.
Q: You believe the most important thing we can do about stress is to change our thinking style. How do we do that?
A: There are a few techniques. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) teaches you practical skills such as relaxation and problem solving. CBT is about looking at, and reframing, your thoughts. Let’s say you’re the type of person who views the world with negative filters. If three of your colleagues compliment you on a project, for example, you would focus on the one colleague who didn’t comment at all, and assume that colleague thinks badly of you. By reframing, you can turn these thoughts around into healthier thinking, as in, “Wow, the people who gave me feedback all thought I was doing a great job.”
Another technique that can help reduce stress is mindfulness, which involves practising increased self-awareness, breathing techniques and meditation. It’s less about changing thoughts and more about choosing where to place your attention. Mindfulness teaches you to slow down. It is more important to be in the moment.
Q: What are some steps we can take to reduce stress right now?
A: One way is to make a to-do list, and use it. Life is full of stressful chores and responsibilities, but the more we can break them down into small, manageable tasks, the more likely we are to achieve them. By getting into a rhythm of accomplishing one task at a time, each one becomes easier and easier. Once you get some momentum, you can attack the bigger to-do items.
Another way is to tune into your thoughts, and question the emotion attached to them. Instead of saying, “I’m not keeping up with my work deadlines so I feel like a failure,” acknowledge the thought, and then reframe it. Perhaps you’ve taken on new responsibilities at work, so actually your output is great. Find ways to focus on positive action rather than self-recrimination.
And some people like to write it out. Therapeutic letter writing is a good way to handle stress that involves another person. Write a letter about–or to–the person who is involved in the situation causing you pain. This technique gives you the distance and time to determine your next best step, and can help you see the bigger picture. It’s not even necessary to actually send the letter. Simply articulating it allows you to work through stress internally.