Stress. We all live with it. To some degree, stress keeps us alive, alert and moving. But too much stress in our lives can throw us off balance. So what is the single most important thing we can do to manage our level of stress? Dr. Mike Evans addresses this in a lively and informative 11-minute video on You Tube where he helps us understand how our thinking style might be the most important tool that we have to reduce the stress in our lives.

What??  How can the way we think be so important?

In actuality, it is more than the way we think, but rather our ability to access our thoughts when we are feeling stressed. So, what does that mean? As humans, we all have a common experience of living, where something happens to us and we have feelings about it that create a physical sensation in our bodies. Most of the time we are unaware of the physical sensation, but it is always there. When our feelings subside, we get to our thoughts, and it is with our thoughts that we make sense of life. Many times, we don’t get to our clear thoughts because we get stuck in the feelings.  When this happens, we act in ways that increase our stress and don’t represent the best of ourselves.Feelings_Illustration

As you can imagine, it is hard to be thoughtful when we are in the cloud of feelings. I am sure you can think of a time when something happened, you got a headache or a stomachache, or your neck got tight, or your back began to spasm. Those physical reactions translate to feelings, like fear, or pain, or sadness, shame or anger. They envelop us like a cloud. When we are stuck in that state, we are not able to utilize the most competent parts of ourselves, most especially our ability to de-stress.

So, what do we do? 

Research tells us that successful stress reduction lies in our ability to create a space between the cloud of feelings and our thoughts. The space is a moment of self-awareness when we realize that we are in the cloud, and consciously decide to step away from it. It is an internal conversation that goes something like this: “hmm, I am really angry right now. I need to take a breath and calm myself.” The space looks like this:

Take a breath.

The space is our friend. It de-stresses us and allows us to access our strength. Each one of us has our own space that we use on a regular basis, but we probably do it without the mindful awareness. From the space we have the ability to “choose one thought over another,” as Dr. Evans says. We can choose to be calmer, we can choose to think logically about a solution to our problem, or we can choose to let go of worry and to conceptualize the situation differently. So, stress reduction is about doing more of what we already do, but doing it consciously, rather than unconsciously.

Sometimes the best way to access the space is with a 1-2 slogan. As Dr. Evans says when he plays tennis, he says to himself, “move your feet” and “watch the ball.” A 1-2 slogan can be  “count to 10 and blink.”  1-2 slogans often involve a physical component like breathing and an action. They are reminders that we have power, we can choose our reactions, and that we have the ability to ease our own discomfort.

So, remember, 10% of life is about what happens to us and the other 90% is about how we respond.

So, what’s your 1-2 punch? 

– by Ellen Yashinsky Chute, LMSW, ACSW, Chief Community Outreach Officer, Jewish Family Service