President John F. Kennedy once observed, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” Stress begins in the brain, in the way we think about our life. We are experts in creating our own stress. We aren’t expert in preventing, reversing or treating our own creation. This emotional education column may turn that around for you.

Who isn’t an expert these days when it comes to stress? COVID-19 sure has challenged us all to deal with stressful circumstances, hasn’t it? Yet, I believe it’s not only possible to deal well with these circumstances, but by getting off of the “RIDE” of negative thoughts (Rigid, Irrational, Dogmatic and Extreme), my experience is that we can mainly prevent and not just manage or reduce stress. 

Like all of healthcare, we strive to prevent, treat and/or reverse illness. Let’s not forget that many health challenges, such as those brought on by stress, can be prevented. Put on your mask and let’s take a deeper dive.

The American Institute of Stress tells us that nearly 80% of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress and nearly 75% experience stress-related psychologicalsymptoms.  Stress is a familiar feeling for more than 50% of the country due largely to job pressures, financial woes, health concerns and unhealthy relationships. A third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression, Census Bureau data shows, the most definitive and alarming sign yet of the psychological toll exacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

And just how do we define this emotional response to life? There are many different ideas with respect to their definition of stress. The AIS says “The most common is, ‘physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension.’ Another popular definition of stress is, ‘a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.’”

Debilitating fatigue, heartburn, insomnia, weakened immune system, rapid breathing, risk of heart attack, high blood sugar, pounding heart, high blood pressure, fertility and erectile problems, low sex drive, missed periods, , stomach aches, jackhammer headaches, weight gain, vice-like muscle tension, boiling anger, frozen anxiety, “I give up” depression—these are some of the $300 billion a year stress related costs.

For something that we create ourselves, this is all unnecessary.  You read that right. Stress is not something we GET.  We are the writers, producers, directors, stage managers, and actors in our own creation we call “stress.”  The European Association for the Study of Obesity tells us that “our beliefs, our representations, our life experiences, our education, and our personalities influence our interpretation of the environment.”

Seneca, the Greek philosopher, knew, “Everything hangs on one’s thinking…A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”

Epictetus, another Greek philosopher, observed, “People are not disturbed by outside things and events, but rather we disturb ourselves about those outside things and events.” American philosopher/psychologist William James added, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” And I’ll add what I’ve learned from coaching CEO’s, athletes, and everyday folks for more than four decades, and the title of my fourth and most recent book, “The link is what you think.”

Let’s take a look inside of that brain of yours, your mind. 

Believe you lack the resources to handle a challenge or imagined “threat”? 

Think you “must” do well and it’ll be “terrible” if you don’t?  

Believe that people “must” treat you well and it’s “awful” when they don’t?  

Demand that life “must” be fair and it’s the “end of the world” when it’s not? 

Think that “nothing could be worse,” things are “more than 100% bad,” or “no good can come from bad events”? 

Instead of creating the psychological and physiological effects of stress with these irrational thoughts, substitute more accurate and rational beliefs:

“I’d like to do well, but I don’t have to do so, it’s bad if I don’t do well but not terrible.” 

“I want you to treat me well but unfortunately you don’t have to do so, and when you don’t treat me well it’s really unfortunate but not awful.” 

“I very much want life to be fair but unfortunately it doesn’t have to be the way I want it to be, so if life is unfair that’s very bad, but not the end of the world.” 

See? Things could be worse. The event you are facing is less than 100% bad, and good could come from a bad event—look for it.

Yes, we could get all scientific sounding here and talk about the amygdala that, under chronic stress, creates heightened cellular activity in the brain making the brain highly reactive to stress. We could even mention how stress is actually neurotoxic to the hippocampus weakening the prefrontal cortex’s ability to deal with stress.  But why? These are only by-products of what happens after you create your own stress. 

Stress is not a mosquito that bites you when you are resting (remember rest?).  It’s not a snake that comes slithering into your office (remember your office?).  Stress is only something that originates in your thinking! Change the way you think and you’ll release the energy you built up, leading to a change in the way you feel. Ahhhh…feeling better already?

We know that exercise, of course, increases your ability to combat the effects of stress you created. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, if you want to sound hip), actually promotes the health of your brain and its growth, in particular in your prefrontal cortex/hippocampus and thus helps in stress management.

But why manage something you can more easily prevent?  When we stumble upon an adverse circumstance in life, how we think about that adversity influences how we feel. The spot between a danger or misfortune, and your belief is where choice occurs. Martin Seligman, Ph.D. refers to your tendency to explain an adversity as your “explanatory style,” a habit that colors your entire outlook on life. He says we have three:

1. Permanence – do you assume that the causes of bad situations are permanent or temporary? Permanent explanations of bad events produce long-lasting helplessness and temporary explanations produce resilience.” 

2. Pervasiveness – do you tend to see things affecting all of you, taking a negative situation and believing it affects all of your life, or do you believe that you can have a misstep in one area of life but that does not necessarily affect or impact every other area of your life?

3. Personalization – do you blame yourself or do you consider that outside events may be responsible when things go wrong? Those who blame themselves often come to believe they are worthless, talentless and unlovable. How’s that for creating stress?

Is your explanatory style creating more tension and unhappiness? Seligman tells us to identify the adversity that is encountered, what beliefs you hold about that situation and then note what you do.

“There are two general ways for you to deal with your pessimistic beliefs once you are aware of them. The first is simply to distract yourself when they occur – try to think of something else. The second is to dispute them. Disputing is more effective in the long run, because successfully disputed beliefs are less likely to recur when the same situation presents itself again.”

Stress lies within your making, within your perspective of events, and that is something you can change. We can zoom out and take a wide-angle view of life. That helps us recognize, humbly, how truly insignificant we are compared to the giant globe on which we are blessed to live. From there, we can drop our self-important insistence. Or we can zoom in and take a much closer look at life, allowing us to focus on the immediate now, not yesterday or tomorrow, but the now. 

The EASO reminds us that, “We are no longer listening to our bodies at the deepest levels.  For example, since you woke up this morning, how many times have you focused on your breath? Have you taken the opportunity to observe the difference in temperature between the air you breathe in and the air you breathe out? How many times have you connected with your body to hear what it wants to tell you? Am I tired? Am I hungry? Is today like yesterday?”

Being present, in the immediacy of now, is a key to preventing stress. There is no “going to” predictions of horror, just the focus on accepting the close-up view of what is right now. We are not really troubled by what’s in front of us but more by what we imagine is “going to” occur. Taming those predictions and putting your head where your feet are, accepting the now, helps significantly in seeing what is real and essential, from what is non-essential in life.

I like what Emily Fletcher, author of Stress Less, Accomplish More said in this regard about three methods to prevent, reverse and reduce stress, “Mindfulness helps you deal with stress in the present; meditation gets rid of stress from the past; and manifesting helps you clarify your dreams for the future.” Mindfulness, meditation and manifesting…three more methods that you may find of value. She also noted, “The habitual reaction, when faced with hard times is, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ What I would encourage you to think instead is, ‘Why is this happening for me?’” And I would add, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?

While there are a myriad of ways to live a healthy, stress-free life, happy and fit, I’ve created this easy to remember list you can begin practicing as soon as you finish this article. The answer lies in the word S.T.R.E.S.S. itself. Remember, I’m an acronymologist:

S– Smile more daily, especially at the first 10 people you see 

T– Think rationally, accurately, logically, confidently, and positively

R– Relive the good with healthy relationships, the pleasant, the favorable accomplishments in your life and avoid recounting the bad

E– Eat right and light including asparagus, avocados, blueberries, warm milk, almonds, salmon, spinach, oatmeal

S– Sweat more through regular exercise including high intensity interval cardio and resistance training (set a timer and stand every 10 minutes if you can during work), yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, and meditation

S– Savor your life by choosing gratitude and focusing your thinking in healthy, mindful, factual ways without predicting gloom and doom, slow yourself down by finding the beauty of experiences and creating relaxing moments throughout your day

Fred, “Mr.” Rogers urged us to remember, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts…” I’ll add, why create stress in the first place? Choose the bliss in front of you. 

Dr. Mantell, what do you think? I believe, yes, you can choose bliss.