By Janet Fontana
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
I recently had a big weight lifted off of my shoulders. For weeks, I postponed calling the parents of a college student – one of my son’s best friends and roommate – who was late in paying rent for a condo we own in Colorado. He wouldn’t return our phone calls or emails and was two months late in paying his rent. The situation was getting very frustrating! Yet, looming in my mind were visions of hard feelings between the boys, defensive parents and maybe even the need to start an eviction process. So I kept putting off the inevitable.
It’s amazing how much energy our worries, fears and anxieties can consume. The longer I waited to deal with this problem, the more mentally and physically exhausting it became.
The good news is that we can learn how to reframe worried thoughts and use stress management techniques to help us to better cope with life’s challenges.
Using the stressful situation that I shared as an example, let’s take a look at how to use a process known as cognitive restructuring to make stressful situations more manageable.
Uncovering Anxiety-Producing Thoughts
During stressful times, our thinking tends to become emotional and narrowly focused, making challenging situations feel even more intense. Psychologists refer to automatic stress-producing thoughts as “cognitive distortions.” I was definitely distorting the situation with my tenant and making it seem worse than it was.
Do you recognize any of the following commonly used “cognitive distortions” in your response to challenging situations?
The “awfulizer” is always on alert for things to go wrong:
- “She is never going to let me take those days off.”
- “The last few days have been so busy. It will probably be even worse today.”
The “catastrophizer” imagines that situations are going to be worse than they are.
- “If we miss the state funding deadline for the project then we are never going to be able to build a new school.”
- “My stomach was upset last night. I’m probably coming down with the flu and will be sick for the next week.”
The perfectionist expects that everything that they and others do needs to be perfect.
- “I might as well do it myself – nobody else will get it right.”
- “We still haven’t arrived at the best solution. We’ll need to keep working.”
Jumping to conclusions is another way that we create our own stress.
- “She’s probably calling to complain about something.”
- “I know him, he’ll never go for this idea.”
My negative thoughts about the situation with my tenant were definitely inflated. I was jumping to the conclusion that his parents would become defensive, and I was catastrophizing that he may never pay his rent and we would need to evict him. All of these thoughts were overly emotional and irrational and not helping me find a good way to handle this situation.
Of course, it is always easier to notice these cognitive distortions in others. The key to lowering your level of stress is to pay attention to your thoughts and emotional state and challenge unproductive, negative thoughts.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
Cognitive restructuring is a highly effective way of challenging negative thoughts and lowering your level of stress.
Follow these 4 steps when you notice negative, anxious thoughts:
- Tell yourself “Stop” – either out loud or in silence
- Take a few deep breaths – as soon as you are away of your breath, you have broken the cycle of worried thoughts
- Ask yourself these three questions to help uncover irrational, stressful thinking and develop more optimistic responses:
- “Is this thought really true?”
- “Is this thought helping me in this situation?”
- ”Is there another way that I could look at this situation?
- Choose the thoughts that you want running through you mind; the ones that will actually help you to cope in this situation.
In approaching the situation with my tenant, I used this process to reframe my negative thoughts before calling his parents. I was then able to handle the situation in a calm, rational manner rather than adding fuel to the fire. I presented an objective summary of the situation and clearly stated my expectations. We had a good conversation and his mother assured me that she would take care of the rent payments. By finally making the phone call, the mental weight of the situation had lifted and I felt relieved.
As is true in most cases, I spent more energy worrying about the situation that it clearly warranted!
Are these thoughts true and helpful?
Most of our stress comes from our own thinking. Remember – just because you think something doesn’t mean it is true! Pay attention to your thoughts and look for cognitive distortions. Challenge negative thoughts before you make a mountain out of a mole hill like I did! Learn to let go of negative, unproductive thinking and consciously choose healthier thoughts.