Why do I feel stressed and what can I do about it?
In summer 2020 after the coronavirus measures were loosened, 40 percent of the population still felt more stressed than before the pandemic. This was established in the evaluation of the ‘Swiss Corona Stress Study’ by the University of Basel. We are currently in the next tense phase, which is again impacting our psyches. But we’re under no illusions, our stress levels were already on an upwards course before the coronavirus crisis. Where does this come from and what can we do?
Although we often like to seek outside causes, we have to tell you: stress arises in our heads. It’s not the traffic jam on the way to work, the deadline two days from now or feedback from the boss. It’s our thoughts that tell us we’re now experiencing stress. We get into a certain situation and, depending on the day, our own personalities and own experiences, we make an assessment within milliseconds. If our assessment is negative, the result is stress. Let’s take a look at traffic as an example. Of course, this can stress you out. You might even end up arriving late to a meeting. But can I actually change anything right now? No. So I can also actively decide to un-stress myself, for example by turning on my favourite music and enjoying having this time to myself. Your own cognitive estimation of a situation as a trigger for stress is an essential building block of stress research: stress arises from our estimation and evaluation of a situation. If I can be the kind of person whose thoughts can trigger stress, I can also be the person to reduce this stress. So let’s take a look at our thoughts or estimation of a given situation. I get some suggestions for improvement from my boss regarding my work. I could see this as negative. But I can also be happy as somebody has just given me a tip for how I can make something better. So why do many people not welcome this feedback?
Often, stress depends on your own identification. We identify ourselves from our thoughts, our actions, our expectations, how we think we have to be and so on and so forth... But this strong identification can make us feel personally attacked very easily if someone says something negative about our thoughts or actions. And yes, this can cause stress. The more we can distance ourselves from this strong identification, for example by not defining ourselves by our thoughts, the freer and less easily attacked we are. Specifically, we should therefore not take suggestions for improvement regarding our actions or thoughts personally. This will mean we don’t feel personally attacked, so less stress is triggered.
In addition to strong identification, every one of us has our own ‘sore points’. These are topics or certain situations to which we react particularly strongly. These ‘sore points’ are defined by our experiences and our learning history. They lead to specific situations, that objectively aren’t very stressful if at all, being perceived as extremely stressful. One example would be colleagues not asking if you’d like to join them for lunch. This shows us that different situations are perceived as different degrees of stressful by different people, so our stress is very individual.
Another important issue is our own expectations. What are my own expectations of myself? Are these realistic? Do we always have to do everything perfectly? Or do we allow ourselves to make mistakes and even see these as positive, as opportunities to learn? Imagine instead your best friend or another person you like a lot. Do you have the same expectations of them? Generally, we expect a lot less from others and have a higher tolerance of mistakes than we allow ourselves. Be your own best friend, and lower those expectations for yourself to a realistic level.
We think it’s important to consciously listen to yourself and identify your own patterns: recognise stressful situations, observe what thoughts result in these situations and actively counteract them by assessing the situation positively or at least neutrally. Think about this excerpt from the poem ‘Invictus’, often quoted by Nelson Mandela: I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
Do you want to deepen your understanding of the mechanisms and causes of stress, and learn about practice-based stress prevention methods? We use the scientifically proven stress prevention programme, stressfit, to support you in your individual stress management. Stressfit is offered under a licence from the University of Zurich, © Prof. Dr. Guy Bodenmann, University of Zurich.
Henley, W. E., editiert durch Quiller-Couch, A. (1931). Invictus. Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900. Oxford, England. Clarendon Press.
Published: 1. February 2021