When you were a baby, your mind was like the streetscape of the suburbs – lots of little roads that connect in multiple places, backstreet short cuts and no clearly defined one right way to get anywhere. You had lots of options and choices as to how you responded to new situations. By the time you’re an adult, progress has moved in. Back streets are blocked by buildings and there’s just a few major arterial roads all leading to one superhighway. Now, the way you respond to situations is largely fixed. You take the well-known highway of habit. It’s fast, it’s efficient. It doesn’t have traffic lights.
This is good, right? (Right??!!). Well it all depends on where your superhighway takes you. If your past choices and the way the world responded were both functional and nurturing of your best self, then your superhighway leads to self-confidence and you’d never dream of taking another road. But what if your superhighway leads to self-doubt instead? What if your arterial roads are signposted with fears and visibility is often poor due to clouds of negative thinking?
Then you might find that you’re the type of person who gets stressed easily. Now we’re in the Christmas season, you might be feeling stressed even more than usual (whaddya mean, you hadn’t even noticed?). Even people who achieve in many areas of their lives can find that when it comes to driving into Christmastown, the route is a bumpy one.
No matter where your stress comes from, I’ve got a great way to reduce it. It works by tearing down some of those abandoned buildings in your mind that no-one was using anyway and turning some of the little alleys left scattered round your mindscape into bigger and better roads, roads to self-confidence and success. You don’t need to learn how to do anything different, it’s just about taking yourself on a different route.
Sounds good? Let’s do it!
The Secrets of Stress
Did you know that your mind is trained to look for problems? It’s our safety scanner, alerting our body to potential threats to our survival. Hyper-sensitive minds have bodies that live long enough to reproduce. No wonder we’re a bunch of worriers! Each generation, nature weeds out those who take risks and focus on rewards at the expense of considering safety (aka the Darwin awards).
I want to share with you a great description of exactly what stress is…
‘Stress occurs when you think you don’t have the resources/skills to cope with a situation, and can’t escape the situation.’
It’s a little clinical, but what’s interesting about the statement is the phrase when you think. Stress comes about because of how we think. If you think you can cope (whether or not that’s actually true), you won’t get stressed. And if you think you can’t cope, you will be stressed (no matter what your actual abilities are). Stress is caused by the particular highway through your mind that you travel, not the situation itself.
Lowering stress is about changing how you see your ability to cope with a situation you can’t change.
How can you do this?
The Christmas List
Your Christmas list is your proof that you can cope. For best results, the list should be started early, written down, and reviewed regularly – every few days or so (just like a good list for Santa).
Pick something that’s currently stressing you out. Work out why you don’t feel equipped to cope with the situation. What do you think you don’t have enough of? Is it patience, confidence, budgeting expertise, time? That thing is the topic of your list. The list might be your ‘Social Skills’ list, your ‘Cope with a Lack of Sleep’ list or your ‘Oodles of Time’ List.
Once you know what you want more of, start to write a list of all the times you have used that quality or thing. The times when you’ve been confident in a social situation, or managed well on a few hours’ sleep, or when you’ve had free time. List anything that seems related. Any event or small instance that proves you have used this quality (or thing) in the past.
Next, add to the list at the end of every day. Reviewing and adding to the list daily keeps your chosen strength/asset at the top of your mind and you will start to rise to challenges rather than avoid them, so you have something to add to the list. You will look for opportunities to succeed in managing your stressful situation, rather than being focussed on how difficult it is. Think of this work as the roadworks construction of your new superhighway – the one taking you where you want to go. Yes, it’s effortful widening the road, and while roadworks are in progress, it’s slower than the old road. But the reason you keep using it is: it’s taking you where you actually want to go!
The longer you keep it up, the faster and better the road to self-confidence gets. You can take actions you couldn’t take before when on the self-doubting highway. You’ll make conscious choices to use your skills, even if they’re not your strongest skills and even if other people can do it better. Your mind will be set up to focus on the fact you can conquer your stressful situation. The list reminds you that you have plenty of skills, even if you sometimes forget to use them. It reminds you that you are amazing!
Whenever you find yourself getting stressed, pull out the list. Review all the times you’ve used the skills required in the situation. You will start to feel better! This is like noticing you’re taking the wrong road, and turning around and driving back to the right road instead.
It sounds simple but it works. You’re training yourself to see yourself as strong and capable in the face of your stress, rather than weak. And what this does is widen the road to self-confidence in the face of a challenge. You think you can, so you don’t get stressed.
At the same time, because you’re using your more positive roads more often, the negative highways start to get neglected. Potholes appear and the bitumen cracks. Those shiny new roads start to seem more appealing. We have an amazing brain that never stops its own construction. It maintains or remakes roads as it requires. It adapts its very structure to what we’re currently learning. So no matter how well used your superhighway is, in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on (to quote Led Zepplin).
As you conquer one area of stress, you may find other areas to work on. Just start a new list! I don’t advise working on more than a few at once (and just one is even better) because the more lists, the harder it is to focus (imagine building simultaneously several new roads at once – its’ just not as efficient swapping between them all the time and that in itself affects confidence in the finish line).
I’ve been using the list to make a log of all the positive feedback I receive regarding my writing and psychological work. It’s helped me to feel more confident about my skills and I love adding to the list. It really is helpful to see a big running total of all your achievements in a certain area, particularly when you’re doubting yourself. There’s no way I’d be able to remember all the things on the list, particularly when feeling stressed. Reading the list is a mood boost that helps you keep stress levels down.
I’d love to hear from you today. Sometimes it’s easy to know what causes us stress, but not what we need to do or be in order to feel less stressed. If that’s you, let me know what stresses you out in the comments below and I’ll help you work out how to focus your Christmas list.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.