How Reappraisal Helps Reduce Stress
The role of our thoughts
Since stress is ultimately a matter of perception, how we interpret a situation greatly contributes to our stress response. There are ways of thinking that may heighten stress, but being in a heightened stress response also increases certain ways of perceiving our environment. This is not to say that the stress is all in your mind, or that you are responsible for feeling stressed because of the way you think. It’s just about recognizing the role that our thoughts can play in influencing and modifying our state of mind, mood, and stress response.
You may be able to alter your perception of demands vs. resources by taking a step back and reassessing not only the situation, but your thoughts about it. Sometimes we work ourselves up into a state of stress. We might be thinking, “This isn’t fair. I can’t cope with this. I haven’t got enough time. I shouldn’t have to deal with this.” Sometimes we misinterpret the urgency and importance of a situation, and our responsibility for responding.
Putting things into perspective
It's helpful to ask yourself a few questions:
What am I reacting to? What do I think will happen? Is this fact, opinion, or a feeling?
Am I overestimating the threat? Am I underestimating my ability to cope or the resources available?
Am I keeping things in perspective? How important is this really? Am I making things harder than they have to be?
With the example of workplace pressure and competing work projects, what are you really reacting to? Maybe you've assumed you will not be able to complete all the assignments by the deadline. Is this a fact though or is this just based on a gut feeling you have? Are you overestimating the threat of not having something done by the deadline? Is this really a big deal for your company? Are you underestimating your ability to survive if your boss is disappointed in you? Are you missing seeing the options of asking for an extension or help from a colleague? Are your performance standards and pride maybe making things harder for you than they have to be right now?
Unhelpful thinking patterns
When you ask yourself these questions, you may also want to consider the influence of unhelpful thinking patterns. These are ways of perceiving situations that are distorted. For instance, our perception of threat is greatly influenced by our mind's ability to "time-travel." Often we are not reacting to something happening in the present but to our prediction of what will happen in the future.
With this prediction, we are often unaware that we have may have catastrophized what this outcome will be. For instance, assuming you will miss your project deadline and be fired because of this and will struggle finding future employment due to your manager not providing you with a recommendation. Does the way our minds can start "spinning" like this sound familiar?
All or Nothing thinking may be influencing your expectations of your work ethic and output. Maybe you think that you either complete all of the projects on time, without help from a colleague, or else you are a failure.
Maybe you are over-generalizing the extent to which you are stuck in situations like this. Maybe you have personalized this and you can't help thinking the universe is against you. (*Sigh* Doesn't it totally feel this way sometimes though?)
Considering alternate or more helpful ways of looking at the situation can mitigate our stress. It’s not about making yourself find the positive in a terrible situation, or not allowing yourself to feel frustrated, but being aware of the choice you have in what is going through your head. It’s about trying to minimize the impact that your thoughts have on how you experience and respond to stress.
What is the likelihood of being fired for missing a deadline? If this happened, could you manage? Have you been unemployed before? Do you have any evidence to support this idea that you would be at serious risk of termination just for being a few days late on a project or for asking for an extension?
Probability Estimates: What is the likelihood that this will happen?
Decatastrophizing: Would this be the worst case scenario? Could I cope?
Examining the Evidence: What evidence do I have to support this?
Is there any way to adjust your performance standards right now? Does asking for help from a colleague really mean you are a failure? How would you respond to your colleague if they asked you the same thing?
Shades of Grey: Is there middle ground?
Adjust Expectations/Standards: Can I change some "should" statements and definitions for myself?
Double-Standard Technique: What would I say to a friend?
Is this really about you having poor work ethic, or it is a matter of your manager having a poor understanding of how long projects take to complete and what he should expect of his employees? What are the disadvantages of feeling annoyed about the situation you are in? What are the advantages of trying to shift your thinking?
Cost/Benefit Analysis of Thoughts: What are the advantages and disadvantages of thinking this?
Reattribution: Am I seeing the whole picture?
Cost/Benefit Analysis of Feelings: What are the advantages and disadvantages of feeling this?
In his commencement speech known as "This Is Water," David Foster Wallace spoke of the importance of realigning our perspectives:
"The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me."
Reframing the situation
It is also helpful to increase our use of coping statements during times of stress. It might sound oversimplified and trite, but sometimes taking a deep breath and whispering “I’ve got this” can do wonders. It helps if this is coupled with a consideration of how we have managed in the past, and how this may mean we can make it through this stressful time. You want to be increasing your perception of having the internal resources to outweigh the demands of the situation.
We can adjust our stress response to a more optimal level of activation if we reframe stressors from being threats to being challenges. Also, sometimes we just need to accept the situation we are in and limit wishful thinking. In the example, this means not only accepting the stressors of work and finances and a new health diagnosis, but the situation of experiencing all this stress in general.
Wishing things were different is a natural tendency. It is comforting to indulge in this line of thinking because our brains are momentarily tricked into thinking this is our reality. However, this ultimately only heightens the discrepancy between what isn’t and what is and leads to more distress.
Other helpful ways of reframing parts of stressful situations include trying to find aspects of humour in the situations and opportunities for gratitude. With the former, this can be as simple as laughing to yourself when your car starts making noise and going, “Ah yes, of course this is happening right now.” With gratitude, this might look like you reflecting on how fortunate you are that you have coworkers and family who can help you; making a list of what you accomplished over a stressful week; or savouring something good during the day.
More information about cognitive approaches and guided worksheets are included in Stress Management Resources. Physical and emotional release strategies are explored in The Need For Relaxation Strategies in Stress Management.