When you think of stress and its causes, what do you think of? Some of us might think about our work, others might think of our bank balance and others still might think of relationship troubles.
But whatever you might think is the cause of stress, the thing to remember is that really it originates in your brain. While these things might all be triggers of stress, the truth is that stress is actually caused by the way we perceive these events and these triggers. All stress is cognitive stress and when you recognize this it becomes possible to keep it under control and to prevent it from spiraling out of control.
What Is Cognitive Stress?
So what does this mean?
Basically, it means that the stress you experience and the events in your life might correlate, but they don’t have to always be so closely connected. Although your low bank balance might increase your chances of feeling stressed, it won’t if you can convince yourself it’s not a problem. Likewise, even having a good bank balance can still cause you to be stressed if you convince yourself that you should be.
The point is that stress is not caused by reality but our perception of reality.
If you’re reading this and thinking that it sounds nice in theory but it doesn’t agree with your experience, then try thinking right now about something that makes you stressful.
A universal stressor for many of us is the idea of embarrassing ourselves in public. Almost everyone has a fear of public speaking because we worry that we’re going to ‘choke’ resulting in people laughing or jeering.
So make a packed with yourself right now that you’re going to leave the house after you’ve read this article and that you’re then going to go to the nearest shop, stand in the middle of one of the aisles and then start singing loudly. Now this won’t be enough to make you feel stressed if you don’t convince yourself you were actually going to do it: but if you could convince yourself to do it then the thought enough would be capable of increasing your heart rate, of making you breathe more rapidly and shallowly and of making you feel overall incredibly stressed.
Even if you didn’t then actually go through with it, you would already have that stress response and this would last for a while. You’ve entirely ‘created’ the stress in your mind. This is completely cognitive stress.
This type of cognitive stress is actually what causes chronic stress. Chronic stress is stress that continues over a long period and is the type of stress that leads to many negative health effects. Acute stress is stress that is an immediate response to some kind of perceived threat and on its own is not actually a bad thing – in fact it is caused by changes in the body that are designed to make us more focused, productive and physically able.
Cognitive stress however occurs when the stress is entirely ‘in the mind’ and this means it can be caused simply by ‘remembering’ the thing that caused you stress.
Fortunately though, the cognitive nature of stress can also be a good thing because it means that you can remove that stress by changing the way you think about it. Just as stress that isn’t there can be a problem because you’re thinking about it a certain way, so too can you deal with stress that is present by changing the way you perceive it.
This is the entire idea behind ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ which is a form of therapy designed to change the way you think.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Stress
Cognitive behavioral therapy involves two processes. The first is identifying the thought patterns that are causing you to be stressed. Often these will take the form of negative ruminations as you think about all the things that could go wrong. You might be thinking things like ‘I’m going to get fired’ or ‘I’ll end up homeless’ or ‘I have so much work to do tomorrow’. By constantly repeating these things to yourself even when there’s nothing constructive you can do, you will end up actually making yourself stressed for no reason – which will in turn mean you never get a break and never get any respite and will make you more likely to become ill or overtired.
Instead then, you should try to replace those thoughts with more constructive thought patterns. In cognitive behavioral therapy one of the ways you do this is with ‘thought challenging’ which means you challenge yourself on just how accurate or useful that thought is.
When it comes to worrying about your boss, your work, your career or your bank balance on a Sunday afternoon, the point to remember is that there’s nothing you can do about it at that point and that the best thing you can do is to just put it out of your mind. Have a plan yes, but when you’re not working to find a new job/dealing with stress management, learn to shut sources of stress out of your mind. The same goes for worrying that you need to answer e-mails from potential clients or colleagues immediately and it goes for any other stress you have that you can’t immediately address.
Likewise, thought challenging means asking yourself whether that thought is actually valid at all.
For instance, if you’re worried that you’re going to end up without a job and on the street, there’s a very good chance that this concern isn’t founded on anything. It’s actually very hard for employees to fire people legally and unless you’ve done something terrible, they probably don’t have grounds to fire you. The fact that you’re putting yourself through this kind of cognitive stress also means you’re likely to be a conscientious person and there are probably tons of other people on your team who are much more likely to be candidates for getting fired than you are. And even if you did get fired, you’d hardly be likely to end up on the streets.
The fact of the matter is that most of us worry far more than we need to. You’ve survived this long, so as long as you keep on doing what you’re doing… you’ll probably be okay. Stop putting yourself through cognitive stress and if you aren’t able to restructure your thoughts on your own, consider seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist who can help you.