Panic attacks. Many of us have had one, or several. Somehow things stress us out so much that at some point we start to melt down. Little things become big things. Problems become impossibilities. Everything starts to overwhelm us. Some of you know what I am talking about.
Stress is like that too. The relentless and unbending pace, day after day after day. The problems with my parents, or my kids. The never-ending need to be doing something. The never-ending list of things to be done. The meaninglessness of it all.
It is truly shocking how many of us live our lives in a constant state of anxiety, pressure, and stress. Day after relentless day of problems and issues and things that absolutely must get done before I can fall into fretful sleep. It is no wonder, than, that so many of us live on the edge of constantly boiling over, constantly in danger of being overwhelmed. Constant anxiety can do that. So can ongoing anger, or depression, or grief. Even ordinary “never going to change” stress and problems can potentially take you to the edge.
Remind you of anything? Ask anyone who’s had an orgasm (and I hope you are one of them) and they’ll tell you that at some point in the whole process you reach what I will call, for lack of a pretty term, the “point of no return”. After this point the house could burn down around you and you’ll still need “just a minute”. There is a vast store of energy just begging to be released. Momentum is building alongside a weakening will to resist and your capacity to hold off a crisis is sorely tested. The train is coming and there is nothing you can do about it.
Anger is also like that. It builds; becoming more intense and more animated, until things just start spilling over. Have you ever wondered why people often seem to make little sense when they are exploding? Maybe that’s because this release of emotion is closer to an orgasm than we care to admit. The build up, the release, the relief. You feel better in spite of the fact that everyone around you feels worse. Time for a cigarette.
- Men, Why Your Orgasm Doesn’t Matter (scott-williams.ca)
verb – to view or talk about (an event or situation) as worse than it actually is, or as if it were a catastrophe: Stop catastrophizing and get on with your life! She tends to catastrophize her symptoms.
It’s something many of us do every day.
Some months ago I got a call from the unemployment office. Years ago I had been unemployed, had collected EI, had started a restaurant, and there was some negotiation over when my EI claim should end. Now years later a supervisor was calling for what felt like an urgent meeting.
I freaked out. I didn’t sleep well for the days leading up to the meeting. I had all my paperwork in order, I was confident I had done nothing wrong. I knew intellectually that it should be no big deal.
Catastrophizing. Making a mountain out of a molehill. Jumping to the wrong conclusions. Expecting the worse. Ever happened to you?
Catastrophizing is one of the classical cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are those emotional coping mechanisms we employ in order to cope with stress and issues in our life. They are things like emotional reasoning – letting our heart make decisions that should be made with our head; or “should” statements – I should be a better person, I should be over anxiety by now, I should not eat that bagel (ok that one may be the right thing to think…). Cognitive distortions keep us sick. We develop these ways of thinking because they work, or at least they used to. It’s tempting to “filter” out positives and believe the worst. Anyone over thirty knows that life will hand you enough manure to convince you that the worst-case scenario is often the right one to believe. Thinking all men are pigs can keep you from ending up in pig crap. Catastrophizing prepares you for the worst, and the worst sometimes happens.
Letting go of our own distorted ways of thinking takes a bucket of work. Being willing to set aside feelings and beliefs that have served us, sometimes for generations, is no simple task. Letting yourself forgive, or trust again, let someone love you, or work through your abuse can be the most daunting thing you ever do. Most of us are tempted to change our actions and hope we will eventually fake our mind into someday playing along. While this can bring limited success, growth happens when we change the way we think, not just the way we act.
Religious people may recall the Bible verse which says that “as a person thinks, so are they”. In therapy we say it this way, “Change your mind and your butt will follow”.
- The Real World (scott-williams.ca)
- 7 Psychology Experts Reveal Their Own Cognitive Distortions (psychologytoday.com)
- Tips for Talking To Men And Attracting Them Like Crazy (scott-williams.ca)
- You Have Herpes (scott-williams.ca)
- Living with An Emotionally Closed-off Spouse (scott-williams.ca)
Millions of people struggle with unhealthy levels of stress. Stress isn’t just destructive to our mental health but to our physical health as well. It weakens our immune systems and contributes to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and other illnesses. These facts are important, but reading about them, or even relaying them, admittedly makes me feel a little, well… stressed. Too often reflecting on our stress just makes us feel worse. So rather than scare you straight when it comes to stress, I thought I would offer a real solution to those nagging (at times terrorizing) thoughts that lead to stress.
The mere mention of the word stress is enough to make our heads spin with thoughts of to-do lists, meetings, schedules, social calendars, kids, work, money. Whatever the trigger mechanism is, it’s always there to distract us from any potential sense of calm. When we allow our negative thoughts to take over, we spend precious energy handling the symptoms of stress instead of solving the problem or dealing with what’s really making us feel such pressure or worry.
These negative thoughts tell us when to worry and what to worry about, but never do they offer us a real solution to our problems. If we were to challenge these negative thoughts, we would soon realize that not only is this destructive thought process amplifying our stress levels but it is actually causing us much of our anxiety in the first place.
For example, many of us feel concern when we have more things we need to do or want to do than we believe we can get done. Very often, however, we are placing too much pressure on ourselves and setting our expectations too high. In effect we are setting ourselves up, and literally scheduling ourselves out, to get stressed. When we set our standards too high, we often set ourselves up to later become a target for our critical inner voice. We start to have self-critical thoughts like: What is wrong with you? You never give 100 percent to anything. Can’t you just get one thing right? You’re such a failure!
Even when times are tough or the pressure being placed on us is external, we can seek out an inner sense of calm by quieting those inner voices that exacerbate the problem. This is not meant to undermine the fact we all have real concerns about our lives. We all struggle at some point with our careers, our families and our futures. Every one of us has concerns at one time or another about keeping a job, falling in love or raising our kids. However, what we actually feel about these things is usually never as bad as what our critical inner voice is telling us to feel about these things.
For example, when we lose a job, we may have thoughts like: What are you going to do now? You can’t do anything. How humiliating!
When we go through a break up with a partner, we may hear voices such as: See? No one could ever love you. You’re going to wind up alone.
Even an event as simple as forgetting to mail a letter can get our self-attacks going: You’re so irresponsible. How are you ever going to get anything done?
These thoughts impair us in our actions and lead us to feel demoralized and even more stressed out. We can interrupt this cycle by becoming more aware of the thoughts that are propelling our feelings of worry. For example, a friend of mine noticed she was waking up in a bad mood every morning. Feeling overwhelmed and rushed, her morning mood was slowly infiltrating her whole day. Snapping at people, overdosing on caffeine and rubbing her head to the point of almost literally tearing her hair out, she knew something had to change.
To understand her 7 a.m. stress, I suggested my friend write down all the thoughts she was having before she went to bed. When my friend did this, she noticed her head was full of vicious self-attacks. Her negative thoughts surfaced every night when she finally took a rest from pushing herself through her day. My friend recounted her thoughts to me: What did you actually accomplish today? You’re no closer to your goals then you were yesterday. Everyone hates you. You snap at everybody. Are you even doing a good job? What’s so important about what you do anyway. You never make time for anyone. You’re so selfish. You’d better work harder tomorrow.
When my friend told me her attacks, I was appalled. “No wonder you’ve been feeling under pressure in the morning. You’re tearing yourself apart right before you go to bed.” As soon as my friend realized this pattern, she started to feel compassion for herself and noticed herself feeling relieved of her morning anxiety.
To fully rid oneself of the critical inner voice, one must not only identify the negative thoughts but stand up to them. Putting our voices in the second person can help us make this initial separation. Try to write down your critical thoughts, first as “I” statements, then as “you” statements. If you have thoughts of feeling stupid, write down “You are so stupid.” Next, stand up to this internal enemy by writing down responses to your critical thoughts with the more realistic perspective of a compassionate friend. For example, you could write, “I am not stupid. Anyone can make a mistake. I have a lot of areas in which I am intelligent and confident.” The intention here is not to build yourself up, but to gain a more realistic view of yourself.
Finally, think about what the actions are that could counter your critical inner voices. When my friend had an attack that she was snapping at people, it didn’t help that she was acting on her self-critical thoughts by getting moody and lashing out at co-workers. Avoid actions that will lead you to feel worse. If eating three slices of pizza relieves you after a stressful day only to leave you later stressing over your weight, it’s best not to use that behavior as a coping mechanism. Remember the critical inner voice is tricky and can sound soothing or friendly as it lures you into self-destructive behaviors. Have that second glass of wine. Just stay home and relax on your own. Later on that voice will punish you with thoughts like: There you go having another drink. You can’t stick to anything. What a loner. You’ll never meet anyone.
The voice can also tell us that we are being victimized. When we have thoughts like, Why is everyone walking all over you? No one else does anything around here, we put ourselves in a powerless position and blame others for the pressure we’ve put ourselves under.
Dealing with stress means taking our own side without feeling like a victim. It means empowering ourselves against our inner critic and not allowing that critic to dictate our lifestyle. That critic will put up a fuss when we act against it and cause us anxiety over the changes we make in our lives. However, the more we persevere and the longer these negative voices in our heads are quieted, the better able we are to live in the moment without worrying about the past or the future. We can then deal with everything in our lives one moment, one step, one deep breath and one thought at a time.