Stress can make us feel anxious and low. This can impact upon how we think about ourselves and other people. Many people who are stressed avoid people, places or situations that they associate with stress. When stressful events happen, we don’t always think in a balanced way. We can focus on upsetting thoughts and feelings about ourselves, for example, ‘they don’t like me, I’m useless…’
These thoughts can go around and around in our head and become more and more negative. Our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours all interact and combine to keep our stress going. It becomes a vicious circle.
You can develop your emotional awareness by paying more attention to your thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and by looking at the connections between these. If we challenge our thoughts, we can sometimes break a negative cycle. Being able to identify whether our thoughts are unhelpful or helpful is very useful.
Try to recognise and challenge your own negative thoughts and identify helpful alternatives. This in turn will help you change unhelpful feelings and behaviours. This is one of the main aims of something called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or ‘CBT’. There are now many self-help guides and books which can be used to practice and develop this skill with activities (have a look at the ‘Resources’ section for some ideas).
Remember, although many of our thoughts occur outside our control, they are just thoughts, sometimes without any real basis, and are not necessarily facts. Even although we may believe a lot of our unhelpful thoughts when we are feeling stressed, it is good to remember that they should be questioned as they are often based on wrong assumptions. First you need to recognise an unhelpful thought, then you need to challenge it.
The following questions will help you to challenge negative thoughts and to try and make your thoughts more balanced:
- Is this thought helpful to me?
- What is the evidence for and against this thought?
- What kind of ‘thinking error’ could it be?
- What would you say to a friend in the same situation if they were thinking this?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking in this way?
- Is there another way of looking at the situation?
- How important is this thought? How will you feel about this in 6 weeks?
- What thought could I replace this with that would be more helpful?
The ‘helpful’ thoughts are more realistic and will make challenges easier to handle. Being able to change unhelpful thoughts can therefore be a good coping strategy and stop you feeling so anxious.