Most of the time, we think stress comes from an outside source. Maybe it’s a fast-approaching deadline that’s stressing you out. Maybe it’s your in-laws. Whatever the case may be, we tend to think that stress comes from outside.
But the truth is, you might be creating your own stress and making everything a whole lot harder.
Yes, that probably ruffled your feathers a bit, but here’s why creating your own stress has its silver lining, too.
How stress works
“I’m stressed.” We say this all the time, but what are the mechanisms behind feeling stressed?
First, our mind perceives a threat – real or imagined. Then, a region of the brain called the hypothalamus tells the adrenal glands to produce and secrete cortisol to help you survive. After all, when you’re feeling stressed, the brain thinks you’re in danger, and it sends out cortisol to save you.
But your hypothalamus doesn’t know the difference between real and perceived threats. Little does it know that the stress you feel is over your mother-in-law, and not a tiger chasing you.
So, unless we are in real, physical danger, much of the stress we feel starts in the mind. Our thinking plays a big role in stress.
Why you shouldn’t feel bad if you create your own stress
Now that you know that much of the stress you feel starts in your mind, you might feel pretty bad. But try not to. The truth is, everyone creates their own stress.
The good part about that is that since you’re the one creating most of your stress, you can reduce a lot of the stress you feel, too.
What are your thoughts saying?
Without even realizing it, our thoughts are constantly running and commenting on our experiences. It’s almost like having a commentator for a game. The only difference is that after the game is over, the commentator goes home.
With you and I, the commentator is our mind and it’s running 24/7.
It’s constantly reacting to everything going on around us. For example, if you’re hanging out with people who “stress you out”, you might be judging their behavior and resenting their words – all with your thoughts. If you’re rehashing and replaying old hurts, that causes stress, too.
Or, you might criticize the world around you, the grocery store, restaurants, cafes, where you work, and people you interact with. Very often, we have negative thoughts about ourselves, too, and this can increase stress.
No matter what you’re stressed out about, there are usually two reasons why.
You’re either resisting the present moment. Or, you’re not experiencing the present moment. If that sounds a bit vague, here’s what it looks like in real life.
How resisting the present moment creates stress
Anytime you don’t like what is, you essentially create stress for yourself. So, if you don’t like the people you’re hanging out with and wishing you were somewhere else, guess what? That’s present-moment resistance.
Anytime you’re staring at the clock, waiting to finally go home, that’s present-moment resistance, too.
In short, whenever we take what is, and say we wished it was different, we’re creating stress for ourselves. We resist what is. We fight against it internally – and maybe even externally.
That’s not to say we have to be happy all the time and like things that don’t feel right. These are important signs to find better situations and more fulfilling relationships.
But at the moment, it’s important to accept what is. Otherwise, we create stress with our thoughts by resisting life in the present moment.
How not living in the present moment creates stress
When you’re resisting the present moment, it goes without saying that you’re not really living in the present moment. Instead, you’re wishing you were either in some past, nostalgic time when “everything” was better.
Or, you wish you were out of that time and somewhere in a better future. Or, we worry about the future instead of simply being in the here and now.
We imagine worst case scenarios and we procrastinate rather than work through our to-do list.
No matter where you’re projecting your thoughts – past or future – if there’s one place where you’re not, it’s in the present moment. But the present moment is all we have and spending time anywhere else is how we create stress for ourselves.
Negative self-talk creates stress
We already know that your own internal dialogue – your inner commentator – has a big role to play in the stress you feel. Let’s take it one step further and look at how our negative thoughts about ourselves, i.e., negative self-talk, creates stress.
We are usually are hardest, cruelest critiques, saying things to ourselves that we’d never say to any other person. We say things like:
- I feel like such a fool
- I feel like a failure
- I’m such an idiot
- I’m so stupid
- I’m completely useless
- Black-and-white, all-or-nothing scenarios: if you make a mistake, you catastrophize it and make a mountain out of a molehill.
If this is how your inner self-talk sounds, it’s easy to lose perspective, and start to feel stressed out really quickly. The question is, are you stressing yourself out with negative self-talk? Are you resisting the present moment, or living outside of the present moment?
If you are, that might seem like bad news. But the good news is you can change that by changing your thoughts.
How to keep your thoughts from stressing you out
A common tip for de-stressing is to take a break from whatever’s stressing you out. But if your mind is behind your stress, you can’t really take a break from your brain, now can you?
Instead, it’s time to change how you interact with your thoughts. Well, the truth is, you probably don’t engage much with your thoughts – they just happen. But it’s time to change that.
These steps are how you can do that.
- Stop! Observe your thoughts
- Identify them. Are they critical, resisting, complaining? It’s okay if they are. Don’t judge them.
- Breathe deeply and accept the fact that your mind has those thoughts.
- Choose to release this negative talk and actively replace it.
Stress can definitely start in your mind, but it can also stop in your mind. And you have the power to do that. Give it a try.