September is the month when our busy lives kick into high gear again. The lazy days of August have given way to packing school lunches, swapping sandals for sweaters, and increasingly frustrating commutes. On top of that, there’s more pressure at work, where renewed focus on business and performance goals often steps up after the summer lull.
Times of transition by their nature can present us with new situations or problems to solve. And that can bring on the stress. Though we can’t eliminate every situation or event in our life that makes us anxious, we can learn to manage our response to them, says Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., meQuilibrium’s Chief Science Officer.
The key is cultivating awareness: first, by identifying the situation or trigger for our stress, and then nailing down and challenging the negative thoughts that are at the root of our unpleasant emotions. This strategy allows us to face our stress—and live our life—with more resilience, even when there’s a lot going on. Here’s how:
1. Recognize your triggers and symptoms. Feeling stressed? Take note of the situation or event that triggered it. For example, maybe you were late picking up your child from a new-friend play date because you got held up at work. “Write down at least one emotion you felt: was it guilt, anxiety, shame? These emotions are your early warning sign that your stress response has been triggered,” says Shatté.
2. Dig for the thought at the root of the emotions. “At the root of every emotion is a thought,” says Shatté. “The key is to pinpoint that thought before it spirals into a full- fledged emotional response.” So, using our previous example: By being late, perhaps you’re worried that the parents of your child’s new friend will think you’re inconsiderate or irresponsible. If that’s the case, ask yourself why. The answer may be that you’re thinking, ‘They’re evaluating me to see if my child is a worthy playmate.’ Acknowledge how thinking this way affects your emotional state.
3. Challenge the thought. Our thoughts around a stressful event “aren’t always accurate,” says Shatté. And they may be upsetting you for no reason. Do a reality check. What evidence is there to prove that the thought is true? Are the parents really judging you—or are you caught up in a loop of self-criticism?
“We have an ongoing ticker tape of thoughts in our head—and a lot of them are not doing us any good,” Shatté says. “If you can catch these negative thoughts in action,
you can begin to weed them out, which improves your clarity and confidence and allows you to take control of your stress response.”
Try this: Take a deep breath to defuse stress
Breath focus is a proven technique for calming the nervous system, increasing focus, and taking your mind off racing thoughts. The next time you feel stress ramping, try this simple breathing exercise from Boston-based yoga instructor Rebecca Pacheco.
Begin by taking a deep breath: inhale slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Now breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose, if that feels more natural). Next, inhale for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four (all through the nose, which adds a natural resistance to the breath). Do this a couple of times, until you start to feel a sense of calm.