Take a moment to try a quick experiment. Say the following out loud if possible, or to yourself if you prefer: “This is awful. I can’t believe this is happening. I can't handle this.” When you do that, what do you notice happening in your body? Does your breathing change? What happens to your posture? What muscles contract or tighten? How do you feel?
Now say the following to yourself: “This is difficult, but I can handle it. I will find the strength to cope with this and move forward.” Ask yourself the same questions as above, and notice what your answers are.
If you are like most people, the first set of statements evokes feelings of tension in the body, perhaps shallow breathing, feelings of irritability, or other signs of stress. In the second example, when I have tried this with my patients, they report being aware of sitting more upright, having less clenching of muscles, feeling a greater sense of openness in their bodies, and feeling more empowered. This is the power of words. The words we say to ourselves are not simply mental events, but affect our emotions and our bodies, which in turn can impact our health. For example, tense muscles, if chronically held, can lead to pain, and stress chemicals flooding our body on a chronic basis can contribute to dis–ease and disease.
It has been estimated that our minds can produce 50,000 or more thoughts per day. If we really begin to pay attention to the things that we say to ourselves, which most of us don’t naturally do, we would notice that many of these thoughts are negative, and even at times self-deprecating. Many of these thoughts make unhelpful predictions about the future without us even realizing this (as in the example above, predicting that we can't handle something before giving ourselves a chance). Our minds can also focus on unhelpful stories about the past and can pull us in and spiral us downward, ensnaring us in a web of negativity and stress.
So how do we step out of this downward spiral? There are many ways to do this, but I would like to share a two-step process with you here.
1. One of the most important first steps toward changing any behavior is increasing our awareness of it. I like to think of awareness as a flashlight in a dark room, helping us shine the light on what is there so that we can see where we are going and step more carefully around the obstacles. Take a moment to reflect on some of your typical negative thought patterns throughout the day. Begin to notice them as they come naturally. Take one day and record what these negative thoughts sound like. Be particularly mindful of what you say to yourself whenever you start to feel stress building.
2. Use the awareness of stress itself as a trigger that allows you the opportunity to pause and be mindful, in order to interrupt the stress response. More specifically, every time you notice stressful thoughts entering your mind, rather than getting caught up in an automatic reaction to them, use the word “stress” itself, and the following acronym, to engage in this brief mindful exercise. As you spell out the word stress in your mind, think of this acronym, saying each phrase to yourself slowly as you breathe in and out (taking a minute or two for this exercise).
Safe to relax
Trust in my own inner resources
Rest in this moment (bringing myself back to the present)
Embrace all of my emotions (even the difficult ones)
Slow down to see the big picture
Send compassion to myself
After doing this, bring your attention back to your day and chances are you will be able to proceed more mindfully and with more choice about how you react to the stress at hand. Practicing this can help flip the switch on stress and turn each stressful moment into an opportunity to wire in more helpful words, and a more thoughtful response when you face day to day stressors in your life.