The Two Beliefs That Keep You Stuck in a Stress Cycle


One of the biggest takeaways I got from attending Arianna Huffington’s “Thrive” event in New York City last month was this: Everyone knows they’re stressed and knows they must do something about it. But no matter who you are—a full-time professional, full-time parent, a movie star, or Arianna herself—there’s this sinking idea that stress is insurmountable, that it’s simply bigger than you.

There wasn’t one person who graced that stage who didn’t, at one time or another, think, “This is too much. I can’t handle it.” And everyone who has come around the bend of that stress-induced despair didn’t do it by beating stress or “winning,” but by changing their mindset.

We recently conducted a survey in our community called “What Does Stress Look Like to You?” to get a sense of how the meQ community was coping with stress.

(Take the survey yourself to find out what stress looks like to you.)

When asked why their own stress went unaddressed, more than 50 percent of respondents replied that they didn’t know how to address it, or they believed nothing would help.

Whoa. That stopped us in our tracks. More than anything else, this suggests that people aren’t dealing with the negative stress in their lives because of an powerful, invisible, and ultimately fluid force: the thoughts they have about their stress.

These are classic Iceberg Beliefs, the thoughts or beliefs you have—about the world, yourself, the way people should act—that even you may not be aware of. They sit just below the surface and loom large enough that it gets in your way without you realizing it.

(Find out how your beliefs are holding you back.)

They’re called Icebergs because only the tip is in our conscious awareness. The rest lies under water, below the level of awareness. Like a real iceberg, these thoughts can be difficult to steer around, and can even sink the ship.

Let’s take these one at a time:

Mental Trap #1: “I don’t know how to address my stress.”
What’s really going on here? There is a suggestion of helplessness and lack of control. The iceberg belief may run something like, “I am incapable of taking charge of my life, and will just have to suffer as a result. I can’t do anything about it.” Go a little deeper, and you get a whisper of this thought underneath it: “Someone else should rescue me.”

Of course, you may not have ever said that in so many words, but I’m willing to bet that you’re own helplessness sounds a little like that. You can see how this would create more stress in your life, and compound the stress you already have!

Mental Trap #2: “I don’t believe anything will change my stress.”
Now this one comes from a similar Iceberg of helplessness. What’s moving beneath the surface of this thought? Perhaps it’s a belief you learned long ago that your efforts are doomed to fail. Or there’s a belief that you in fact should be stressed, that this is your lot in life, and that maybe you don’t even deserve pleasure or happiness. This is a recipe for long-term suffering.

How to Shift these Beliefs
These deep beliefs were probably helpful when you were a kid, but you’ve outgrown their usefulness. They are keeping you from dealing with the negative stress that can have a serious, long lasting effect, all the way to an increased chance of heart attack and Alzheimer’s.

More information isn’t the answer. The first thought, that you don’t know how, may be true, for the moment. But you and I both know that a lack of information is not most people’s problem. We are, after all, living in the Age of Information. You’re a few keystrokes away from more than you could possibly read, let alone use. But most importantly, you’re still under the assumption that more information equals less stress. And that can lead you to think you “don’t know enough.” But that’s a convenient way of hanging onto habitual and self-limiting ways of thinking. None of which serve you in the least.

Transform helplessness to hopefulness. If you find yourself thinking, “Nothing can change my stress,” stop and acknowledge the purpose of assuming the worst. Does it make sense to assume this? What does holding onto this assumption do for you?

And most importantly, recognize: You don’t have to have all the answers to be able to take care of yourself and be open to the possibility of change.

No doubt, there are likely concrete obstacles to addressing your stress–a demanding job, lack of childcare, maybe health concerns, maybe a lack of social connection. These realities make it even more important for you to work with your Iceberg Beliefs so that when opportunities to address your stress do come up, you’re able to embrace them. (Read more on coping with Iceberg Beliefs.)

Remember, you can’t expect to dislodge your old beliefs in a day or a week. But the first step is being aware that they are there, then trying to understand how they got there and whether or not they actually hold up to the life you have now and the person you are now.

  • Melissa

    Boy, did I need this message. Very provacative and has given me much to think about.

    • Kerri

      me too…….!

  • Tim

    Sometimes we forget that a change in perspective can be huge! In the book “Scaling Up Excellence”, the authors highlight the belief that everything is manageable as a key to excellence in your situation. That belief can reduce your stress levels.

  • BWM

    The iceberg idea is scary enough to force a reaction…………guess I will be working towards reassessing what’s really important. #reorganize #focus

  • Clay Ryan

    I think this article is alarming: more than 50% of people can’t believe they can change! Yes, the tip of the iceberg is the conscious daily cycle, but the underlying belief system, led by our preconditioned perceptions consumes this daily rhythm.

    I agree, Ian, that awareness it the key — followed by a daily ritual which allows us to acknowledge our pressure points, but moreso, to allow ourselves the freedom from them.

    In time, we can condition a better response to the chronic fight or flight of the 24×7 world. This article, and the MeQuilibrium voice is an excellent path to on the beginning of this transformation.

    Thanks. Keep pointing us in the right direction — to a stress-free living type of mindset.
    Best of health,
    Clay Ryan

  • Clay Ryan

    HI Jan!
    Please excuse my typo!!! My humblest………
    (And the other few word/typing mistakes.)
    I’ll read through my comments more closely next time. :)
    Thanks again for a thought provoking article and spreading the news from a top event.
    All the best,
    Clay Ryan

  • Katie

    “I am incapable of taking charge of my life, and will just have to suffer as a result. I can’t do anything about it.” Go a little deeper, and you get a whisper of this thought underneath it: “Someone else should rescue me.” – This is exactly what I think, and I just want to say thank you for making me aware of it! I think this exact series of thoughts about everything in my life that becomes even the tiniest bit difficult (and therefore stressful). You’ve given me an “ah ha” moment, a wake-up call. Now that the light bulb is on, I’m definitely going to be doing your ‘zap, trap and map’ when I find myself saying that I can’t make changes.

    • Dave

      Hi Katie,

      I’m curious if you found ‘someone to rescue you’ or was knowing you were thinking about this enough?

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  • sg

    good to know i am not the only one!

  • meera

    The key to breaking the stress cycle can be found is simple, deep, consicous breathing with the exhalations becoming gradually longer than the inhalations. Trying to reduce stress by way of the mind is like trying to catch the wind. Start with the breath, do some yoga, you’ll feel a lot better.

    • Halli

      Dear meera
      The problem with using relaxation techniques to fight stress, or (as you say) break the stress cycle is just like using band aid on a chronic injury.
      A more rational approach to fight stress, and therefor the key to breaking the stress cycle, is to address stress at its root. What is making you stressed? Is it because you are a perfectionist, is it because you worry about everything, is it because you are always behind on time, is it because you are lonely and so on. People have to find remedies to the things that produce stress in ones life to solve them.
      Here is an example. Your house is always catching fire, it could be the electricity, your kids playing with matches, you keep forgetting the pot on the stove or it could be the late night romantic candles. Would it be a good solution just putting the repeating fires out with an extinguisher? And solving the problem by trying to find new and better extinguishers? Of course not. In this case, just like with stress, the problem is solved with removing the root cause, in this case the fire hazards.
      It is not a good long term solution using methods that only deal with the consequences.
      Find what is causing the injury and you can stop using band aids.
      That is not to say that relaxation techniques are useless. On the contrary, relaxation techniques are a valuable tool and everyone should know how to use them because you will probably need them before you know it, just like band-aids :-)
      All the best

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  • meera

    Best way to get in touch with the iceberg–Yoga Nidra, a guided deep relaxation done at the end of many yoga classes. If your yoga class doesn’t includ it, you’re not getting your full existential paycheck!

  • RC

    The survey on what does stress look like to you, linked on this article, needed more answer choices. It wasn’t very accurate for me.

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