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Changing the Way We Think About Stress

attitude balance positivism Feb 10, 2020

by Susanna Clavello, Emotional Wellness & Personal Growth Coach [email protected] 


Stress can be defined in many ways. According to the American Psychological Association, for example, stress is “a normal reaction to everyday pressures, but can become unhealthy when it upsets your day-to-day functioning.” On the other hand, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”

In reality, not all reactions to everyday pressures are stressful, not all stress is harmful, and not all human beings react the same way. Furthermore, stress is not a reaction to adverse circumstances like we usually think of it; stress is the response to our way of thinking about the circumstances, or the meaning we give to any given situation. Stress, therefore, can be our best ally or our worst enemy based on the way we think about it -our mindset.  

There is a kind of stress that is positive, also known as eustress; it motivates us, energizes us, and also protects us. For example, the butterflies in our stomach, sweaty hands, palpitations, or uncontrollable laughter or tears when we are about to race in a competition, start a new job, launch a new project, learn how to drive, get married, or when a child is born, are the result of a mix of excitement and joy, fear and apprehension, and of facing the challenge of something new and unknown. As a result we plan, practice, study, prepare, visualize, and put forth our very best effort to ensure a successful outcome. Eustress is our ally and its purpose is to keep us focused, avoid making silly mistakes, boost our self-confidence, and create resilience. 

On the other hand chronic stress, also known as distress, is the one that accumulates day after day and wears us out little by little. It’s the kind of stress that we experience when Murphy’s Law happens, when we have a financial burden, a bad day at work, tasks that are beyond our skills and abilities, family issues, and other circumstances that make us feel overwhelmed. Chronic stress can show up as anger, frustration, resentment, lack of self-esteem, chronic fatigue, anxiety, isolation, and/or overindulging (i.e., overeating, overdrinking, overspending, gambling, etc). 

A common example of chronic stress is when we get stuck in traffic. We are in a bad mood, blow the horn, yell at the driver in front of us, check the watch every 10 seconds, sweat, feel anxiety, speak in a sharp tone of voice…

These common reactions are not due to the circumstances per se; rather, it’s our mind that thinks of the worst case scenario. For instance, we visualize arriving late to the meeting, to pick up the kids from school, to the concert, to a doctor’s appointment, or that we will run out of gas - I am going to lose my job, my children are all alone and unsupervised, they won’t let us in, I am going to miss my appointment, I am going to be stranded in the middle of the freeway. 

This mindset is our worst enemy and in the long run, can result in negative health consequences. The good news is that we can live healthy, fulfilled lives if we avoid the buildup of distress and give it a more amicable twist. To do this, we offer the tips below. 

  1. The power to choose - All human beings have the ability and the power to choose one thought over another. If we become aware of the thoughts that cause us distress (most of which are only our own interpretations), the uncomfortable sensations it generates, and our way to respond to it, we realize that most of these thoughts are harmful. To change our mindset let’s ask ourselves, what could be another explanation? or, what’s another way to look at this situation? and examine the possibilities. Choosing positive thoughts helps bring out hope, faith, and serenity, and helps us discover our best weapon to fight stress.

  2. Priorities - What are your priorities in life? Reflecting on our values during stressful times helps us face difficult situations. When we honor our values we can shift from internal conflict to clarity, and make good decisions that are based on our principles.

  3. Fears - Fear is the most important reason why we feel stressed out - fear of losing our jobs, of running out of money, of our lack of skills or abilities, of ridicule, of what others might think... It’s because of fear that we make poor decisions, and give up on our goals and dreams.

  4. Living in the present - Regretting the past does not change anything. Worrying about the future is a waste of time and energy on something that does not exist and may result in something completely different than anticipated. The present is the only moment that exists, and we must learn how to live it wholeheartedly.

  5. Your health - Do you recharge your batteries as often as you recharge your cell phone? If the answer is no, consider giving your body everything it needs to function at its best - nutrition, exercise, rest, meditation. When our tissues are renewed and our body functions are optimal we feel healthy, more centered, strong, alert, and productive.

  6. Setting boundaries - Remember that others will treat you the way you allow them to treat you. Many times we choose to say yes to situations that generate stress and anxiety. We do it to please others, to get along with others, to be accepted. It’s important to know our limitations and set boundaries so we can have more freedom and control on our lives.

  7. Letting go - Pressing for everything to go our way, always wanting to be right, or being in control are habits that do not benefit us plus they alienate us from others. Putting forth our best effort, letting go of control, and trusting in the infinite wisdom of the Universe allows things to flow and happen the way they are meant to be.

If your stress level is so high that it’s leading you to a breakdown, we highly encourage you to get some help and reach out to a professional coach, a psychoanalyst, or a psychotherapist.

Susanna Clavello, Emotional Wellness & Personal Growth Coach

[email protected]



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