When I was a kid and watched hundreds of double feature cowboy movies on Saturday afternoons, one of the phrases that I heard in almost every movie was, “Let’s head ’em off at the pass.” I knew the bad guys didn’t have a chance to get away because the good guys always headed them off.
Amazingly, that is also an example of one of our best defenses against stress. Head it off at the pass. Don’t even let it get get into your head. Works like magic, but it isn’t at all.
The Harvard Medical School has produced a special 52 page report on stress management and offered some superb guidelines on exactly that. It is called Cognitive Restructuring.
Here is an example: “Stop for a moment and try to remember the thoughts that were running through your head the last time you were late for work. Perhaps a simple thought, such as “the train is late,” quickly transformed into “I’ll be late to work. I won’t make it to my meeting on time. My boss will be angry with me. My job is in jeopardy. This always happens to me.”
The report offers examples of these distortions and suggests we use the following list to become aware of negative thought patterns and try to substitute more realistic, positive ones.
■ “All or nothing. Everything is black or white; nothing is gray. If you don’t perform flawlessly, you consider yourself a complete failure.
■ “Overgeneralization. One negative event, such as a slight from your spouse or an encounter with a dishonest merchant, is perceived to be part of an endless pattern of dismaying circumstances and defeat. For example, you might think, “He’s always cold” or “You can’t trust anyone.”
■ “Mental filter. One negative episode, such as a rude comment made to you during an otherwise enjoyable evening, shades everything like a drop of food coloring in a glass of water. It’s as though you are filtering out all the light and only see darkness.
■ “Disqualifying the positive. You are unable or unwilling to accept a compliment or praise. You deflect all compliments with self-deprecation. You might say, “It’s no big deal” or “It was nothing.”
■ “Jumping to conclusions. You draw negative conclusions without checking to see if they have any foundation in fact. You may be mind-reading: “My friend seems upset; she must be mad at me.” Or you may be fortune-telling: “I just know the results of my medical test won’t be good.”
■ “Magnification or minimization. You exaggerate potential problems or mistakes until they take on the proportions of a catastrophe. Or you minimize anything that might make you feel good, such as appreciation for a kind act you did or the recognition that other people have flaws, too.
■ “Emotional reasoning. You assume your negative emotions reflect the way things are. For example, “I feel inferior. Therefore, I must not be as good as others.” Often these emotions are residual feelings that linger from other experiences in your past.
■ “‘Should’ statements. You adhere to a rigid set of beliefs and internal rules about what you ‘should’ be doing and feel guilty when you don’t stay the course.
■ “Labeling. Rather than describe a mistake or challenge in your life, you label yourself negatively: “I’m a screw-up.” When another person’s behavior bothers you, you pin a global label on him or her: “She’s so controlling.”
■ “Personalization. You blame yourself for triggering a negative event that occurred for complex reasons or for something that was largely out of your control. “If I had taken care of myself properly, I never would have gotten cancer.”
Other clues can also help you identify distorted thinking. Sentences that include the words “must,” “should,” “ought,” “always,” and “never” are often harsher than necessary and reflect rigid thinking that could stand to be softened.”
The report can be ordered from the Harvard Health Publications website.
To read more about stress, relaxation and happiness. you can also click on the tags at the right of this page. The brain is another very useful tag.
There is a post I wrote after hearing a talk on stress at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. You can check it out at – Super Tools for Handling Stress.