This guest post was graciously written by a member of our community from a first person perspective on sexual assault.
We're back with another episode of “Coffee with the Counselor” and this is going to be another post where we're answering a question. The question for today is:
“Why do I stress about everything? Everybody says ‘don't stress the small stuff’ but I stress about all of the small things. How do I stop?”
I think this is a really relevant question in this day and age. I think that it's a question that a lot of people are asking or wondering about. Before we jump into anything else, I want to talk about how this is a cultural issue not just an individual issue. The American Psychological Association (APA) did a survey called “Stressed in America.” Some of their top findings were:
- 44% of Americans report that their stress levels have risen in the past five years
- only 40% of Americans report that their health is very good or excellent
- one-third of children who completed the survey reported that they had experienced a physical symptom of stress in the last week like a headache or a stomachache
Stress levels are the highest they have ever been and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere anytime soon. With all of this being a cultural issue, I think it can be really difficult as individuals to not get sucked into this acceptance of the idea that being stressed as a state is normal. I'm here to tell you that there's a better way! You don't have to walk around feeling like a big ball of stress. There is a way that you can manage your stress so that you can have a sense of calm and peace for a majority of the time. Of course you're going to face stressful situations, of course you're going to face circumstances that you can't control; but if you have a good way of coping with those, it doesn't have to take over your entire day or your entire week or your entire year.
So with that, I want to jump into a concept that I teach to probably 95% of the clients that come in to see me for counseling (if not more) and I hope that I can do it justice in just a few minutes. This is something that I review over and over with clients, it's something that I have taught courses on that have been 10 sessions long and we still don't get through all the material. This is based on a book by Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend (link). This infographic is adapted from that book which is “Boundaries.”
I want you to imagine that everybody in the world, including yourself, has a bubble. In that bubble, you have your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviors, and your biology. These things that are inside your bubble are within your control and they're your responsibility. Everything that you face in life is going to fall into one of these five categories – it’s either one of these four things in your bubble, or it's outside of your bubble in your environment. The important thing to remember is if it's inside my bubble I have control over it and I'm responsible for it and if it's outside my bubble I have no control over it and I have no responsibility for it.
Let me break these things down just a little bit more:
We obviously don't have a ton of control over our biology. We kind of get what we get and apart from medical intervention there's not much that we can do to control or change our biology.
The same idea is true when it comes to our feelings. We don't do a lot to try to change or control our feelings - our feelings are just reactions to things that are happening around us whether that be internally or externally. Our emotions are good things and we want to be experiencing a broad spectrum of them. (I will talk a lot more about this over time). While we don't try to change our feelings, we can manage/regulate our emotions so that they don't get out of hand.
Our thoughts are one of the two things inside our bubble that we do have absolute control over. They are a large part of what we work on in counseling here with cognitive behavioral therapy. We learn how to control our thoughts, how to work through your thoughts, how to change negative thinking, etc.
Our behaviors would be the 2nd things we have absolute control over. We are always in control of what we do, what we don't do, and how we respond to the things that happen to us.
If we can learn to tune in to what we’re experiencing, we can use this boundary concept to manage stress. If I am feeling stressed or anxious and I look at the situation, I would say 98% of the time I'm probably focusing on something that's outside of my bubble that I don't have any control over. Let’s put this to use using an example:
Let's say you're going to a family event and a family member there is always really critical, they always nitpick on things, they make rude comments. You're anticipating going to that, it always stresses you out, it always turns into a fight, and it causes a lot of anxiety in you. So if we look at our chart we can see what's in our bubble. This person saying critical things or nitpicking - that is their behavior and that means that's in your environment. You can't control that. You can't control what they think, how they feel, or what they say or do. But, you can control how you think about it and perceive it, you can manage your emotions, and you can control how you react to what they're saying. So this is the way that we kind of use this to manage stress - by focusing on the things that are in our bubbles instead of focusing on all of the things that are outside our bubbles.
You could go into that situation saying “well, they shouldn't be saying those things” or “I wish they would stop” or “what can I say to her to make her stop saying these critical things to me;” but, the reality is you can't do anything about that. You can't control what she's doing, but instead, if you take a perspective of “What can I do differently? What can I control in this situation?” you empower yourself to handle the situation. You could decide “I don't want to go to the event if it's causing too much stress for me” and can manage your stress by putting some distance between you and this person. You could decide “I'm going to ignore those comments. I am expecting them to make those comments. I'm just going to let them go and that's going to be my response.” You could confront that behavior and tell them “I don't appreciate those comments” or “Those comments hurt my feelings.” There are a lot of things that you can choose to do.
If you focus on that person and what they're doing, that's when a lot of stress and anxiety and frustration come in to play. So, two things with using boundaries as a way to manage stress:
- Focus on the things that are inside your bubble - When you're facing a stressful situation, if you focus on the things that are outside your bubble you're going to cause more stress for yourself because those are things that are outside of your control.
- As far as the things that are outside of your bubble, work on accepting those things as truth/reality - I often hear people say things like “They shouldn't say those things to me,” “This shouldn't be happening, “I should have done better.” The reality is, when we use “should” statements, it makes us argue with reality. My response to statements like this, when somebody says something like, “He shouldn't have said that to me” would be something like “okay, but he did say that to you - so what are we going to do about it?” That that kind of turnaround is a way to bring things back into your bubble and to focus on what you can control. If I spend my time thinking “this shouldn't be happening,” it’s an argument with what's actually happening. What that does is it debilitates us and it keeps us in that situation instead of helping us move through the painful situation.
None of us want to stay in a painful situation longer than we have to and so these two tips of focusing on what's inside of my bubble and working on accepting the things that are outside of my bubble will help.
Later this week we’ll be doing a part two with 5 tips on how to manage stress. If you have any questions or topics you hope that we'll talk about in the future make sure you comment or send us a private message!
Beginning therapy can be intimidating. There are a lot of unknowns, especially if this is your first experience with counseling. Read these tips in order to maximize your therapeutic experience.