April is Stress Awareness Month. Each week I’m therefore writing a short, practical blog post on the subject of stress management.
Week 1 was about the importance of recovery time.
Week 2 was about time management (or lack of it) and its huge impact on stress.
This week I’ll be discussing cognitive flexibility.
Cognitive Flexibility & Stress
One of the most important messages I share with my coaching clients about stress is that stress is inside-out not outside-in.
We tend to think that stress is caused by something external. It’s a situation we find ourselves in; an event which we experience; something somebody says or does to us. It’s all external. We are victims of it. We have no sense of personal efficacy or control. Two guarantees of feeling stressed!
However, stress is not caused by an external event or situation or by someone being mean to us. Stress is caused by our response to that event/situation/mean comment.
It’s how we think about the situation cognitively which results in a mental and physical stress response. What we say to ourselves about it, the meaning we ascribe to it, the assumptions we make about it, whether we downplay it or over-dramatise it in our heads and so on.
Are some situations potentially more stressful than others? Yes of course they are.
We all know that bereavement, divorce and moving house are three of the top potential stressors in life.
However, we all respond differently.
Some people might breeze through some, or all, of these things whilst others might lose the plot completely and be unable to cope. It’s all down to our stress response.
Thus cognitive flexibility is a key skill in managing stress. If you can change the way you think about an event, recognise that we create our own meanings and hence our own reality and become aware of any unproductive thinking patterns so that you can challenge and change them, you’ll be well on the way to reducing how stressed you feel.
Top 3 Cognitive Flexibility Stress Hacks
So, with that in mind, what are my top 3 cognitive flexibility stress hacks?
Improve your self-awareness. Self-awareness is the first step of change. If you’re not aware that there’s a problem you won’t try and do anything about it.
Accepting that stress is inside-out, that to a large extent it’s your response to a situation that is causing you stress and that you, therefore, have more control over it than you thought you did is a great start point.
Re-framing is a brilliant example of cognitive flexibility. Often the reason we are stressed is purely because of our frame of reference. In fact, in that moment, it’s all we have.
If you consciously change the frame, you change your point of view and can see the situation from a different perspective. Examples include:
- Considering how someone else would view it eg. an expert in the field or a good mate
- Considering how big a deal it would be a week/month/year from now
- Considering how you would feel if you were observing the situation as an outsider or from a long way away
Get different angles on the situation and see what changes as a result.
3. Black and White Thinking
Another classic way we stress ourselves out is down to the patterns of thinking to which we’ve become habituated. Black and white thinking or binary thinking is one of the most common.
Martin Seligman (the founder of positive psychology) talks about the 3 P’s:
Notice whether you’re seeing the situation as something that will always be an issue, that affects every part of your life and is all your fault.
Or conversely, just a temporary situation which is quite specific and wasn’t exclusively down to you.
Typically, extremes at either end of this scale can be problematic – an indication of binary or black and white thinking.
Challenge your thinking, seek out the grey or the middle ground and immediately feel a release in tension.
Thus, cognitive flexibility is key when it comes to managing stress. If stress is a result of how you think about something, then being able to change the way you think about it will be transformational.
Remember stress is inside-out not outside in and you have way more control than you think you do.
So during the rest of April be mindful of the impact of your thought processes on your stress levels. Consciously seek to re-frame situations (even ask someone else how they see it) and watch out for the killer thinking trap of black and white thinking.
You’ll feel a lot less stressed if you do.