Everybody knows what being stressed feels like. In many cases we also know why we are feeling stressed: too much work to do, then we have to meet friends, we don’t get enough sleep, our mother-in-law is coming to stay, the kids have to be brought from A to B on time, and so on. But there are also phases in our lives when we feel stressed for no apparent reason. What’s behind this and how can we change it?
What is stress?
Stress is an elevated level of tension. Because the body and the mind are not independent of one another, physical stress has an impact on our psychological experience and vice versa. We can identify psychological tension in racing thoughts, feeling ill at ease and being irritable. But there is a positive kind of stress (‘eustress’), for example if we are excited about something, as well as the negative stress which ambushes us in our hectic daily lives.
What is stress for?
Stress, meaning increased tension, leads to an excess of energy. Our body registers that we need to do something and ramps up all of our systems. Stress is there to make sure we can adapt to our circumstances. But the catch is that constant stress eventually exhausts our resources. If we don’t take time to recover, we can become physically or mentally unwell.
“Sometime the reasons for stress are diffuse and unknown to us”
There are phases in life when there isn’t an obvious reason for stress, like too high a workload. Sometimes the reasons for stress are diffuse and we may not even be aware of what they are. In light of the current situation, this is often the case, and absolutely understandable.
Stress and coronavirus
During the corona crisis many people are experiencing a permanently elevated level of tension, even if everything seems to be fine (as far as it can be). That’s because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Will the infection numbers go up again? Will I or one of my loved ones get sick? But this potential future scenario hasn’t happened yet and the events we are imagining might never come to pass. So there is actually no reason for the tension we are feeling and we ask ourselves “What’s wrong with me?”
Thoughts lead to stress
“If we feel stressed ‘for no reason’, it usually means that our thoughts are causing the stress, rather than a concrete event”
If we feel stressed ‘for no reason’, it usually means that our thoughts are causing the stress, rather than a concrete event. This could be thoughts about the past, but in most cases it’s thoughts about the future, since stress is designed to equip us for difficult periods. This means we often have trouble sleeping when we are stressed. It’s particularly in quiet moments that we find ourselves starting to dwell on things. These nocturnal worries trigger a stress response in our bodies: we are hyped up and naturally can’t sleep. So our thoughts keep going round and round.
The future only exists in our thoughts
“The future exists only in our thoughts, but it still triggers a stress response”
Imagine biting into a juicy lemon. If you really engage with this thought and imagine it, your mouth will draw together and produce more saliva – even though the lemon isn’t real. It’s the same with the future. The future exists only in our thoughts, but it still triggers a stress response. It is within this context that the most useful solution to the problem is to be found.
How do I control my thoughts?
If thoughts trigger stress, the key to a stress-free life would seem to be controlling our thoughts. Positive thoughts lead to positive feelings and thus to a very pleasant life. But as you probably already know from experience: you cannot control your thoughts. Psychological research has even found that we can feel even worse when we try to force ourselves to think positive thoughts. So what can actually help us?
Anchor yourself in the here and now
Many methods for anchoring yourself in the here and now focus on breath. But there is also the option of seeing those thoughts themselves as fixed in the present. Make yourself comfortable and follow these steps:
1. Notice that you are having thoughts
If these thoughts are very troubling, this can be difficult, because you automatically perceive them to be true and necessary. But always remember: you have thoughts, but you are not your thoughts.
2. Observe your thoughts
Just as you can watch a train go past, you can observe a thought. By doing this, you undo the connection to that thought which would normally trigger stress. If you are able to observe something, you are detached from it.
3. Let your thoughts come and go
Thoughts have an enormous power of attraction. But be aware that you are in no way obliged to follow them, develop them or even to act in accordance with them. Thoughts are just thoughts. You can’t magic them away, but you can simply let them be there without letting them influence you.
4. What is behind my thoughts?
If you no longer identify with your thoughts, you will notice that you have a consciousness behind them that is always free of stress. Practice the steps above regularly to access this “inner calm” more easily. It’s available to you at any time.
How to calm your thoughts in daily life
If you don’t always have time day-to-day to concentrate on individual steps, you can try this: when you are having a troubling thought, add this sentence in front of it: “I am currently having the thought that…” This helps to distance yourself from the thought by identifying it as just that – a thought – rather than the immediate reality. Plus you anchor yourself in the present. Rather than automatically speculating about the future, you notice that you are currently thinking about something. In this way you will experience less mental and physical stress – and sometimes even none.