Change Your Thinking, Lower Your Stress

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

The research is in:  Some of us are hardwired to react badly to stress while others seem to sail through it far more smoothly. According to  the recent piece in the Wall Street Journal (“Are You Hardwired to Boil Over from Stress”), you can now blame your DNA or your parents. Does this take the burden off us to take responsibility for our stress response or does it underscore the importance of understanding how we are wired as the clue to re-wiring our stress response? Bruce J. Ellis, co-author of a study featured in a recent piece in the WSJ points this out: “Understanding that different people are programmed to react differently to stress can help individuals understand their own behavior and manage their health, relationships and decisions.”

Exactly How Does This Work?

If the tree falls in the forest and you are there to hear it– what’s your response? Is someone taking advantage of you? Then you likely have an anger response. Do you think the tree fell because no one properly watered it? You likely get frustrated in stressful situations – you tend to blame your tools and resources. Maybe you think that perhaps you caused it to fall?  Then you are a personalizer; and if you think that every time you look at something it falls or falls apart, well, then you are an overgeneralizer.

We get wired to think this way from the time we are young and while it helps us short cut our way through making sense of what’s happening all around us, these reactions are often inaccurate.  More important, when we get stuck with these shortcuts, they exacerbate our stress.

Let’s See How This Plays Out

Let’s consider an example to see how this works. Say you just presented for a big piece of business and are waiting to hear whether you’ve gotten it. Two or three days have passed since you expected to hear any news, and you’re starting to wonder. Here are some thoughts that may run through your head:

  • “I knew this was too good to be true.”
  • “They probably went with another team.”
  • “I wish I hadn’t told my Board. I’ll be so embarrassed when I have to tell them that we didn’t get the business.”
  • “How rude not to call me back for three days! Who needs these people?”
  • “Maybe I’m just no good at this.”

Or you might just experience one or more emotional reactions to the situation which increase your discomfort as you wait. When combined with shame, embarrassment, anger or frustration, the situation becomes much more difficult to bear:  and the stress you feel casts a pall over everything else you’re doing, perhaps making you unproductive or irritable in other areas of your life.

In business, we often say it takes all kinds and I often watch how employees and colleagues react under adversity because it provides powerful clues to how they are wired to manage stressful situations, rejection and adversity.

We obviously can’t change our genes, but we can change how we think, according to my colleague Andrew Shatte. My advice: Look inward and take note. What happens when you get cut off in traffic or someone you are meeting with starts checking her email? Pay attention to the spike of emotion or the knee-jerk thought, and become aware that it’s causing an emotional shift. Only when you can acknowledge this thought forming in real time can you loosen its hold over you. Just because someone cuts you off is not an omen for the day, and because someone checks her email doesn’t mean she’s bored with you. When you can unplug from the thought-emotion chain and break the cycle of stress, you’ll be more present—and that much more likely to achieve what you’re after, too.

You can learn more about this topic at  “thinking traps” at